Spoiler alert! This post contains spoilers for the first season of Atypical.
When we first heard that Netflix was creating a new original show that depicts the life of a teen with autism (as well as the life of his family), we were equal parts excited that a drama was taking on such a needed challenge and worried that the show wouldn't approach the topic in a thoughtful, realistic and compelling way. After watching the first season of Netflix's Atypical, which became available in full on Friday, we have mixed feelings: The creators got a lot about autism right, but the show as a whole suffers from a lack of complexity and a lack of believability that we were craving after reading about the premise.
Here's what we loved and what we loathed about Atypical.
We can see why this show got the green light. Following an 18-year-old with autism through the joys and challenges of his teenage life is daring, fresh and needed. In this golden age of television, it's amazing that we are seeing so much diversity, so much depth, and so much risk-taking, especially by streaming companies like Netflix and Amazon. We are getting to experience life through the eyes of so many more people, with so many different backgrounds and stories, that it's almost an embarrassment of riches. A show that introduces a main character with an increasingly common and very misunderstood disorder is extremely welcome.
Keir Gilchrist, a 24-year-old Canadian actor, has a long history (for such a young performer) of playing challenging roles. After parts in United States of Tara and It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Gilchrist told Entertainment Weekly that he's not interested in playing easy characters or taking easy parts, as long as the script is good. In Atypical, he shines as Sam despite a less-than-great script. Throughout the first season, Gilchrist not only captures the real struggles of being a teenage boy and being an autistic teenager, he does it so well that you feel each second of it.
With that being said, Gilchrist does not have the best lines or stories to work with. Even though you can feel the creators trying extremely hard to avoid autism stereotypes, Sam doesn't often feel like he is more than his diagnosis. Gilchrist does his best to portray a full, complicated, deeply felt person, but he's often held back by the script: saying shocking lines and talking about penguins (like some people with autism, he is an expert on certain subjects; in his case, it's Antarctica).
Any show that focuses on a certain disorder is in danger of sounding like an after-school special: overly educational or, even worse, making the show about the disorder, not about the story and characters. Atypical does a great job of subtly educating audiences who might not know a lot about autism. Facts and figures about autism are integrated smoothly into the script, and information about living with autism is folded in without being obstructive.
OK, now onto the not-so-great stuff about the show. First and foremost, we were disappointed with the treatment of Elsa, Sam's mom. While actor Jennifer Jason Leigh does a fair job in her portrayal, Elsa's storyline is far too typical for a show called Atypical. While Sam's character is treated carefully and lovingly, Elsa's quickly slides toward stereotype: a stay-at-home mom facing a midlife crisis as her son reaches adulthood, both bored and overwhelmed with her life at the same time. She's used to putting everyone else first, sacrificing her own needs, etc., etc.
As she begins an affair, rather quickly, with a local bartender, it's hard not to roll your eyes. As the affair storyline continues, somehow managing to be clichéd and unbelievable at the same time, not rolling your eyes becomes even harder. It's difficult not to think that the show's writers simply didn't put much thought into the complexity of being a mom, even though they put a lot of thought into the complexity of being a teen.
Elsa is not the only character on the show that feels flat. Her husband, Doug (Michael Rapaport), is as bland as his name. He likes sports and isn't quite sure how the household runs, but he has a big heart. He also doesn't have much of an emotional capacity to connect with his son, though that evolves as the season progresses (why hasn't it evolved in the first 18 years of Sam's life? We aren't sure). Doug is clueless but well-meaning — one of the oldest dad stereotypes in the book, and one we'd like to see die along with common stereotypes about autism.
Then we have Sam's friend Zahid (Nik Dodani), who is supposed to be one of the show's sources of comedy but too often borders on South Asian nerd stereotypes. Like some of Sam's moments that are overdone or trite, Zahid's stunts often left us cringing.
For a show that is supposed to celebrate our differences, Atypical seems in so many ways to be absolutely typical, to the point of being clichéd. Perhaps this is on purpose: to show that the lives of a family affected by autism are just like anyone else's. But the outcome is that the story feels trite and the characters feel like they are acting out situations that we've seen over and over again: The dad whose son isn't the ball player he'd imagined. The mom who wants to escape her responsibilities. The teenage boy who is clueless about girls but wants badly to see boobs. Casey (played by Brigette Lundy-Paine), Sam's sister, is a bright spot of complexity, but it's not enough to save the rest of the show. The well-acted and heartfelt scenes between Casey and Sam are great, but we don't want to wade through the rest of the show to get there.
The time for a really great show starring a character who happens to be on the spectrum is surely coming closer, but this is not it.
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