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Reviewish: "Atypical" on Netflix

by Ben Miller

Keil Gilchrist headlines "Atypical" as Sam, a teenager on the spectrum.

Full disclosure: I am not objective.

Generally, a reviewer would attempt an unbiased look at how a piece of entertainment could appeal to the masses.  We all know this is not the case in reality.  Everyone comes in with their own experiences and assumptions, which we base our opinions on.  I want you all to know that I did not review Netflix’s new series Atypical without my own preconceived notions.

My son has autism.  I have been wavering on whether I wanted to give Atypical a chance.  It could go the This is Us route and over-sentimentalize everything, or it could go down the I Am Sam road and make everything offensively “special”.  There is a delicate balance with shows that deal with disabilities.  On top of that, I know a whole lot about autism that a casual viewer doesn’t...

Sam's mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and sister (Brigette Lundy-Paine)

The series follows teenager Sam and his family as he decides to begin dating.  Sam is on the autism spectrum and his family’s life essentially evolves around his diagnosis.  Sam’s mom (a painfully miscast Jennifer Jason Leigh) is overbearing and controlling, but in a good way.  His dad (Michael Rappaport) is distant with a longing to connect to a son he doesn’t seem to know.  His younger sister (newcomer Brigette Lundy-Paine) takes care of much of his needs at school while serving as a bodyguard of sorts.

I spent the entire first episode waiting to be offended.  I was expecting broad generalizations, misnomers and bad science to come in.

Luckily, the first episode assuaged my fears.  That doesn’t mean that Atypical is perfect (it definitely isn’t), but it allowed me to soldier on without a constant preparation of irrational judgement.

The show focuses on five separate perspectives, all with their unique insight into Sam’s worldview.  Sam himself (played by Keir Gilchrist of United States of Tara fame) attempts to navigate the high school perils faced by all teenagers, but with no social skills and zero tact.  I give Gilchrist top marks for the consistency of his portrayal, especially when he has a sensory breakdown on a bus in later episodes.  The problem lies in the execution of his autism.   

There are many specific traits a person on the spectrum would have.  These include, but are not limited to: repetitive stimulation, aversion to loud noises and bright lights, pressure sensitivity, texture preference, lack of eye contact and food pickiness.  Sam checks every single box.  There is no autistic trait that he doesn’t possess.  Another feature of autism is a singular focus on a specific topic with difficulty abandoning that topic.  Sam’s topic is penguins and Antarctica.  It’s mentioned almost immediately and is never abandoned.  If you love penguins, then Atypical is the show for you.

The bigger problem lies in the bluntness of Sam’s interactions with people.  There’s a line between not knowing how to act in social interactions and being an asshole.  Sam is an asshole.  He calls a girl a skank right to her face after watching her kiss multiple boys in multiple days.  He cheerfully announces he received a handjob at a school dance.  It’s a dangerous precedent for the expectation of autistic behavior.

Later in the series, Sam finds a girlfriend (Jenna Boyd).  She is perfect for him.  She understands his autism, she likes him for who he is and she is OTHERWORLDLY patient.  Guess what happens?  Sam screws it up because he acts like an asshole in front of her whole family in a public setting.  He doesn’t feel bad; he just acknowledges that he shouldn’t have done that. 

Sam (Keir Gilchrist) and Paige (Jenna Boyd)

There has been a myth about people on the spectrum that they don’t have any empathy.  The series deals with this head-on in a therapy session.  Sam specifically states he believes he has more empathy than neurotypicals (NTs, as they are called), but then he continues on like usual. 

Remember “Amelia Bedelia”?  If you don't  “Amelia Bedelia” was a series of children’s books in the 80s and 90s.  The title character is repeatedly placed into comical adventures based on her absolute misunderstanding of figures of speech and various terminology.  She takes everything literally and causes a fair amount of chaos.  These books were great in the 2nd grade, because they taught you not to take everything at face value.  What would be the consequences if we had no understanding of the subtleties of English?  Sam shows incredible intelligence.  He has high marks in school, remembers pretty much everything and has a near encyclopedic knowledge of Antarctica and penguins.  But, when it comes to metaphors and sayings, he apparently reverts to a 6 year-old.

Most of all, Sam is a real bummer.  When he’s working, he zeroes in and keeps to himself.  When he’s at home, he’s in his room alone.  When he’s at school, he observes but does not interact.  Where is his joy and happiness?  Sure, he loves penguins and the Antarctic, but when he goes to watch penguins at the aquarium with his dad, he looks like an academic, not a wide-eyed kid filled with wonder.  The series really makes autism feel like a rough time.

It feels weird to compare the two, but I keep comparing Atypical to The Accountant.  As ridiculous as the Ben Affleck-vehicle might have been, it felt like it understood autism.  It felt like there was someone of the set of The Accountant telling them what they should or should not be doing.  With Atypical, it felt like they were reading articles and going from there.

Going forward, I think Atypical has some potential, but the problems I see seem difficult to overcome.  There still is plenty to like about the series.  Especially Lundy-Paine, who is poised for a breakout with her performance.  Other standouts include Nik Dodani as a Sam’s super-horny co-worker, Boyd as the aforementioned girlfriend and Kevin Daniels as a brutally honest track coach.

I wouldn’t expect Atypical to win any awards, but I appreciate the opportunity to watch a story I can relate to as a NT-father to a son on the spectrum.  They might not have nailed the execution, but a baby step in the right direction isn’t a bad thing.

Atypical is now available for streaming on Netflix. Previous posts from Ben here.

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Reader Comments (4)

I really only like the sister in this. I can't stand Jennifer Jason Leigh in it either.

August 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterArlo

I love Jennifer Jason Leigh but I don't necessarily want to see her playing moms. Nothing against mothers but I prefer my JJL as bitter sisters or crazy roommates or unhinged sex workers.

August 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrad

So, then I won't recommend this to my autistic son. He can't STAND watching these kinds of portrayals.

August 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

Agree that JJL is miscast... there's something so weird about watching her grocery shop and doing laundry.

But I think i like the show more than you Ben. I like Keir Gilchrist so much as an actor that I'm just thrilled he got another big role. And the sister is amazing.

Also just curious to see where the plot goes (I'm 3 or 4 episodes in and just met the future girlfriend you mention)

August 18, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

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