Feb 21, 2020
Binge or No? Netflix’s Atypical
Note: This review contains minor spoilers for the Netflix comedy-drama Atypical.
“Why are you with him? What’s in it for you? Are you desperate or do you think you’ll get extra credit for dating the weird kid?” demands Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) to Paige (Jenna Boyd), trying to determine the teenage girl’s reasons for being interested in her older brother Sam (Keir Gilchrist), who’s autistic.
“No!” exclaims Paige. “I really like Sam. He’s honest and so cute. Have you seen his notebook thing? It’s amazing. The way his brain works, it’s so interesting.”
I wish Atypical kept Paige’s sentiment at the forefront of its 8-episode run. Atypical is the latest comedy-drama from Netflix and centers on autistic teen Sam, who at the encouragement of his therapist Julia (Amy Okuda), decides to try dating and find a girlfriend. Throughout the season, his overbearing mother Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), bumbling father Doug (Michael Rapaport), and tough but kind-hearted younger sister Casey struggle to make peace with Sam’s growing forays into love and romance while wrestling with their own various personal dramas.
Sam is characterized similarly to the previous representations of autistic characters we’ve seen in media before—he’s a geeky loner on the high-functioning side of the spectrum with a heightened interest in the sciences (Sam, in particular, enjoys biology and Antarctica), he’s brutally honest to the point of jerkiness sometimes, and his inability to read most social cues is mostly played for laughs—but I really liked the idea of Sam being a romantic lead and trying to find love in the awkward, fumbling way that all teenagers do.
The series is created and written by Robia Rashid, who previously worked as a producer on How I Met Your Mother and The Goldbergs. Although Rashid consulted with a professor who worked at UCLA’s Center for Autism Research and Development, and also families who have children on the spectrum, I think the story would have benefited a lot more if she consulted with other high-functioning autistic people and how they approach dating. Her research came from the perspective of caregivers to autistic people, not autistic people themselves, and the writing definitely reflects that. Sometimes, episodes focus too much on how Sam’s family members react to his autism—as a tragedy or as a source of shame—but very little on how they react to him as a family member or as a person. When the show does try to examine the complexities of being a caregiver, it never truly delivers much emotional impact.
In the episode “Julia Says”, Sam decides to go shopping for new clothes and Elsa immediately tries to talk him out of it. She reminds Sam that he previously hated the loud Muzak, bright lights, and fountain at the local mall, but Sam is persistent. When they arrive at the store, Elsa points out potential irritants and picks a fight with the manager for not delivering on the accommodations she requested. However, Sam is fine with all of this—it’s Elsa who’s uncomfortable with change, and she lashes out in self-destructive ways.
Instead of exploring Elsa’s fears throughout the season and how she defines herself outside of being Sam’s caregiver, the show flings her into a flirtation with a local bartender as a shortcut for angst and drama. In addition to being a wasteful storyline (after Mad Men, I’m not really interested in examining the ennui and angst of cheating spouses), it was a huge waste of Jennifer Jason Leigh. She spent all of the season either angsting about Sam or angsting about the hot bartender; there was very little for her character to do. In contrast, Doug had the potential for a great storyline—after being ashamed of Sam for so long, he finally learns how to connect and bond with his son—but his screen time is mostly dedicated to him learning how to deal with Casey’s new boyfriend. I wish the show tried to develop them further rather than spend screen time on Elsa’s affair or Julia the therapist, who also had her share of relationship angst for some reason.
The series was at its strongest when it centered around Sam, either directly or indirectly. A successful storyline involves Casey, who gets recruited by an elite prep school for their track team. In addition to deciding whether it would be right to abandon her current track teammates and her new boyfriend, she has to decide whether it would be right to leave Sam behind too. Although she’s the younger sibling, Casey acts as a protector to him and worries if Sam will be fine navigating high school with classmates who are less understanding than she is. Additionally, she wrestles with feeling resentful that her accomplishments often take a backseat to Sam’s problems. In one episode, she breaks her own track record and is disappointed to find neither of her parents witnessed it; they were either attending to their own personal drama or Sam’s.
Speaking of Sam, I think Keir Gilchrist does pretty well in the role. He’s very earnest and likable, and although the writers didn’t do much consulting with autistic people themselves, his narrations do provide a basic insight as to how he views the world, akin to how Arthur was able to break down Asperger’s in a way that was easy to understand for viewers. I felt that sometimes the humor could get a little too cruel when it tried to play Sam’s inability to read social cues or other aspects of his autism for laughs, especially when Sam sadly narrates, “People think I don’t know when I’m being picked on, but I do. I just don’t always know why, which in some ways is worse.”
Thankfully, not every character in the show treats Sam and his autism poorly. Paige, mentioned in the dialogue above, is genuinely infatuated with Sam and doesn’t see his autism as something that is “wrong” with him. She’s not perfect—she can be annoying in the way that teenage girls with their first crushes can be—but she has a good heart. Their relationship is filled with the cringe-worthy ups and downs of teenage love, which Keir Gilchrist and Jenna Boyd play very well off of together. I also really loved Zahid (Nik Dodani), Sam’s co-worker and friend, much to my surprise. I normally hate the “horny nerd” character, but Zahid is thankfully expanded beyond bragging about bagging chicks. I would say Zahid is the best friend anyone could ask for. He encourages Sam to flirt, he brings his girlfriend of the week to help give Sam advice, he remembers how Sam likes to be hugged, he joins Sam on a quest to impress Paige, and when he takes Sam to a strip club, he acknowledges the bright lights and loud music are a bad idea and doesn’t try to push Sam out of his comfort zone. Zahid still goes inside the club for the buffet, but he promises to come straight back out to hang with Sam.
Several autistic reviewers have already expressed their dismay and frustration with how Sam’s autism was portrayed in Atypical, and I think some of their disappointment might have been alleviated if we got to see more of Sam’s local autistic community. Elsa is often seen going to support groups for people with autistic family members, but Sam himself is barely seen interacting with other autistic teens. In the episode “The D-Train to Bone Town”, Sam briefly spends time with Christopher (Anthony Jacques, who’s an actor on the spectrum) while their moms hang out. It turns into a funny scene that stems from the fact that they dislike each other and have nothing in common—until the topic turns to sex and dating. Then, they open up to each other and trade knowledge and confusion on the matter. In almost every episode, Sam receives advice about dating and relationships—why not to talk about penguins so much, how to flirt, how to tell if you’re in love—and it was so great to see him briefly talk with another character who was in his exact same position and learn that he isn’t the only one confused.
Instead, Atypical tries to deliver the generic message that no one is normal (literally; at one point, a character tries to cheer Sam up by telling him that everyone is weird in their own way), but it’s a hollow platitude. No one is normal, but no one is not normal in the same way. I think this theme would have been better established if there were other autistic characters—whether they were friends of Sam or just acquaintances he barely tolerates from his mother’s support group—who could have shown that there’s a wide range of how autistic people live, learn, and fall in love. I wish Atypical would have tried harder to go for nuanced storytelling rather than falling back on clichéd relationship dramas and partly-researched portrayals of autistic people.
The verdict? Not worth a binge. Atypical tries to break ground with an autistic romantic lead, but it falls into typical storytelling clichés when it focuses on the family’s reactions to Sam’s autism instead of letting the audience see Sam’s reactions to a neurotypical world. If you’re going to watch this, I recommend the episodes “Julia Says”, “That’s My Sweatshirt”, and “The Silencing Properties of Snow”, where there’s an excellent balance between Sam learning how to date and the family’s personal problems.