There’s no such thing as normal.
That’s the refreshing message from Atypical, a new(ish) Netflix series created by Robia Rashid, about one charming young man on the autism spectrum, which ends up beautifully exploring the idea that none of us are really as normal as we’d like to think we are.
While the series, which has been lauded as a flawed but reasonably accurate depiction of life for a person with autism, in this case 18 year old high school senior Sam (Keir Gilchrist), doesn’t set out to diminish the distinctiveness of the condition, it certainly makes it clear that Sam is no less or more human than the rest of us.
It’s an important message since humanity is cursed with a near-unquenchable thirst to place everyone in black-and-white, crudely simple boxes, responding to the people they contain in certain set ways that bear no resemblance to the unique perspective and life of that person.
For all of Sam’s differences – he cannot easily distinguish social or emotional cues, has a charming obsession with Antarctica, and specifically its penguins, and has what is known as “atypical verbal development”; so in many ways what many of us understand as autism 101 for better or worse – he is simply a young man who would like to see a girl’s boobs (his words) and have her as a girlfriend (or a practice one) and is poorly serviced anytime anyone places him in the “autism box”.
Just like anyone else, Sam is very much his own person and Atypical does a thoroughly charming of demonstrating through Sam’s sweet but determined quest to find himself a woman with whom to have sex, and maybe love (assuming she passes his pros and cons list of attributes).
While Sam is sometimes the punchline for a scene, it’s never done in a cruel or malicious way and you could well argue that many of the other “normal” characters (there’s that easily-twisted, damn near useless word again) end up every bit as much being used to make a comedic point in a series that neatly balances itself between comedy and drama (more the latter than the former, and no, we will not be referring to it as a dramedy).
Ultimately Atypical is less concerned with taking cheap comedic or crafting overwrought dramatic moments – in fact, to be fair, it doesn’t tend to either of these extremes at all, thankfully – and more with giving us a balanced and nuanced look at Sam, the way honest and unaffected he sees the world, and how the world sees him. It also does a lovely job of examining how his family have moulded themselves around him and how, even though their love for him is unquestioned and often in display in both touching and groundedly practical, he has shaped how they respond to the world around them.
Sam’s father, Doug (Michael Rapaport) loves his son, despite his wife’s cheapshot retort one night at dinner that he doesn’t even seem to like him, but frets that he can never seem to connect with him. It’s an anguish that began sooner after his birth, and led to a brief schism with his family, now obviously healed. As Atypical begins, and Sam wrestles with the complex and comfusing world of dating, made all the more so for him by his raw honesty and struggle to full process the unsaid nuances of nascent romance with a member of the opposite sex, Doug finds a way to connect with Sam, simply by meeting him where he is at, taking all his frustrations and problems at face value and giving him unadorned sensible advice.
He also saves Sam at one point from making a complete fool of himself with his 26 year-old therapist Julia, whom Sam is convinced is his forever girlfriend, with the sweethearted Paige (Jenna Boyd), who likes him for all the right reasons, merely a stand-in with whom to practise.
Sam’s sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) has a whole other realm of issues to deal with.
Younger than Sam, but forced by circumstance and a fierce love for her brother to act much as an older sister would, Casey is a high school track star with an offer to attend a prestigious sports academy in a town an hour away, who constantly finds herself living in Sam’s shadow. To her credit, she doesn’t resent Sam for it (well, most of the time) but understandably finds her aspirations curtailed more often than not, by the need to accommodate Sam’s unique position in the world.
It’s the plight of many a sibling in a family with a person needing special care and attention, and is handled without fanfare or melodrama, a fact of life that she and her parents must grapple with and which has a series of less than perfect and quite realistic outcomes.
It’s perhaps Sam’s mum, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is most emblematic of the way you can be both empowered and imprisoned somewhat by caring for a teenager with autism.
This is not to even remotely suggest that Sam is a burden or a problem; on the contrary, Elsa sees him, unsurprisingly, as a blessing, much as any parent would see their child, and while caring for him carries its own unique set of demands, Elsa happily puts in the time at supports groups, school and with Sam himself, to give him the love and care he needs.
It’s when she meets and has an affair with bartender Nick (Raúl Castillo) that her carefully-constructed world, built almost solely around Sam to the occasional frustration of the endlessly-accommodating Doug, starts unravelling, her “all Sam, all the time” mantra opening to reveal a woman who lost her sense of self in the midst of being a mother.
Again, there is no sense Elsa resents Sam, or indeed Casey, in any way; she loves motherhood. But she has never examined those feelings and thoughts we all have, even when we love someone, that may not as positive or Anne of Green Gables as we’d like, and when she finally does, she’s deeply unsettled by what she finds.
Ultimately Atypical, which seems to do an appreciably good job of representing someone with autism – although, with no firsthand experience, my perspective is limited with someone like Leslie Felperin, mum of a child on the autism spectrum, far more qualified to provide commentary – is a sweet, warmhearted and deeply sincere show that gives us a delightful look at the perils of growing up.
Yes, Sam is rightly at the centre of the narrative, and his charm, honesty and desire to live as full a life as possible are a pleasure to watch – you want to spend as much time with him as possible, happy when he is treated as anyone else would be, and cringing when people report to placing him in a narrow-minded, poorly thought-out, and often unfeeling boxes – but it’s the way the show weaves him into the wider fabric of family and society, with great sensitivity and understanding, that makes Atypical one of the best shows to come along this year.