Atypical: Season One review
With Netflix churning out so many original series throughout TV’s strongest seasons, some fail to get the promotion and attention they deserve. Atypical, a show centred around Sam, a high functioning autistic 18-year-old, seems to have gotten lost amidst the likes of Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later and Gomorrah – and that’s a real shame. Despite its obvious flaws, Atypical did its best to depict autism in an educational, relatable manner that speaks to those who may be (in)directly affected by the neurodevelopmental disorder, as well as the mainstream audience. Though the show wasn’t always consistent in its character development it offered superb performances, most notably by Keir Gilchrist as Sam and Brigette Lundy-Paine as his younger sister Casey.
The pilot episode opens on Sam, repeatedly flicking a pencil against a rubber band spanned between his thumb and index finger – his self-stimulatory behaviour, as he explains to his therapist Julia (Amy Okuda). He knows people consider him a “weirdo” and it makes him feel alone, misunderstood. In these situations, his defence mechanism is to twiddle and think about all the things he’ll never be able to do, things that are considered “normal” for most guys his age, such as having a girlfriend. When Julia gently reminds him that it is not impossible for him to have a romantic relationship, his new mission is set: he is going to start dating. Much to his mother’s dismay.
Throughout the eight episodes of Atypical’s first season, we come closer to understanding how people on the autism spectrum experience life – particularly teen life. Sam has come a long way in terms of social interaction, but that doesn’t mean to say he truly recognizes social cues and all things mentioned in a non-literal manner. He is obsessed with Antarctica, and cannot fathom why others do not share the same fascination, but tries his best to find common ground with his peers through observing their behaviour and social interactions as though he were a scientist studying the mating rituals of chinstrap penguins. He goes into full-on research mode, often relying on ill-conceived advice from YouTube’s macho men on “the quickest way to get a chick on your dick”. And while Sam’s quest for love contributes to most of the comical aspects on the show, it also shines a light on all the situations that are extremely triggering for him – loud, flashy environments, soft, gentle touches, emotional confrontations, invasion of personal space – and examines how he, and his family, cope with the resulting meltdowns.
While it is true that Atypical relied on a cliched depiction of autism – not only in its symptoms, but its choice of character being male, attractive and high functioning –, it tried to veer from the TV norm by putting Sam and his journey front and centre, which has allowed viewers to follow his experiences from a personal perspective. The same can be said of his parents, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Doug (Michael Rapaport), and his sister Casey, whose personalities have been shaped by Sam’s diagnosis. Elsa, the “helicopter mom”, has dedicated so much of her life to support groups, learning aids, charities and charting restaurants, shops and other public spaces deemed overstimulating for Sam, she has lost her own sense of self in the process. Doug, who merely acts as a buffer between Elsa and the kids at first, has a hard time finding his own place in the family. Elsa is reluctant to let him play an active role in parenting Sam – for reasons that aren’t altogether wrong – but, in doing so, she tends to forget that Doug is just as affected by their son’s special requirements and lack of affection. They both seem to feel completely alone in their role as parents, albeit on very different levels.
Next to Sam, Casey is by far the strongest character on the show, and her relationship to her brother was particularly interesting to watch. Unlike Elsa, Casey does not pussy-foot around Sam, and treats him like she would anyone else, though she is obviously respectful of his triggers. She engages in playfights with him, smacks him on the head when he loudly blurts out “twat” in front of her crush, and is all game when it comes to supporting him in his dating endeavours. She’s fiercely protective of him and has developed a tough exterior most likely brought on by years of defending Sam in an ignorant society but, deep down, she does feel the burden of being responsible for him and is saddened by her always ranking second with her parents. The resentment can be felt, particularly towards Elsa but, ultimately, she knows that neither Sam nor her parents are at fault – it’s just the way it is.
Atypical may not have been ground-breaking in its study of autism, but it managed to find a good balance between drama and comedy in its warm-hearted, Hollywoodian portrayal of what it means to be a teenaged kid on the spectrum, without making light of the nuclear family experience.