Review: “Atypical” (Series)

You can always count on Netflix to produce a little gem of a show that might not air on regular TV. Atypical is one of these series.

It follows the life of Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), a teenager with autism that decides he wants to start dating girls, and his family: an overbearing mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a somewhat clueless father (Michael Rapaport), and a harsh but dependable sister (Brigette Lundy-Paine). The series has 8 short episodes, and no renewal has been announced as of yet, but this dark comedy is worth the binge!

Gilchrist, a relatively unknown actor, is quite brilliant as Sam and truly carries the series on his shoulders. He does Sam so much justice and makes him lovable even at his worst. Well, sometimes not lovable, but at least I was always rooting for Sam and being empathic towards what happened to him. Rapaport also delivers as Doug, and is quite a lovable character despite everything that the audience learns throughout the series. Lundy-Paine is a breakout star here, delivering harshness and vulnerability all at once. I saw many reviews criticising her as lacklustre but I disagree. This is a character who had to play second fiddle to her brother with autism her entire life, big emotions and lack of control just don’t come with her package. My only qualm with the main cast is maybe Leigh, who just didn’t sit well with me for some reason I haven’t quite identified. She’s not bad at all, but maybe she just didn’t fit with the character as well as the other three.

The breakout star of the supporting characters definitely is Nik Dodani as Zahid, Sam’s sort of best friend. He is such a caricature of a character, but under Dodani it just works so well and he had me laughing every single time he was on screen. Amy Okuda is really well as Sam’s therapist Julia, but her side plot was missing a bit more development. And finally Jenna Boyd as Paige, a girl from Sam’s school. If you have watched “The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants”, you’ll recognise her, and it almost feels like Paige is a grown-up version of Bailey. Annoying yet endearing.

The series use of a voice-over is cleverly and originally done. Some scenes, especially in the latter episodes, are heartbreakingly written or breathtakingly filmed, or both (I’ll hint at two with keywords, you’ll know what I mean when you watch it: the bus, and the snow). The series is quick paced, dark in comedy but also very informative.

I did read some very condemning reviews of the portrayal of autism here. Two particular ones (that I won’t find the links to, sadly) stuck with me. One argued that the series was too light in its portrayal of autism because Sam is a verbal, highly intelligent, high functioning person with autism, which is how autism is always portrayed anyway so it was deemed as nothing new. To this I have two comments: First, even though yes, they did not break away too much from how autism is normally portrayed, they gain a lot of credit for making the person with autism the MAIN character, and to give so much insight and knowledge into what autism entails and how many different forms of it there is (through dialogue only though, so they did lose some points in not bringing other people with autism as actual characters in the story). Secondly, for a different portrayal of autism, I refer you to episode 4 of the third season of House (“Lines in the Sand”), which brings a boy who is non-verbal and with a much more severe type of autism than Sam. I do hope though that in Season 2, if it gets renewed, they will explore other sides of the Autism Spectrum Disorders and maybe bring to the screen lesser known forms.

Another review criticised it from a feminist perspective, saying that the show excuses toxic male behaviour from Sam as being just parts of his autism. About that I am a bit on the fence. While it is true that his autism is used as an “excuse” for bad behaviour, taking into consideration how autism plays out in real life, it is a completely plausible scenario that he’d do those things without his disorder being used as a flawed screenwriting cop-out. The second point made was about how he is, once again, a white, male, privileged individual, as are most, if not all (I can’t think of one that isn’t) portrayals of autism in film and TV. Doing a bit of research, that could also just be a representation of reality, as most studies show that white males have a higher prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Getting a bit academic with you, I remain sceptical of these studies as I am pretty certain that there is an under-representation from other groups as is often the case. So to these arguments I wouldn’t be too quick to jump on board too, as there is more science behind it than meets the eye, but they make valid points that the production team should keep in mind for a second season.

Before I digress too much into academic stuff, I’ll stop here and say that Atypical is a beautiful, funny and sometimes heart-breaking series dealing with a topic that rarely is front and center in a series or film (Adam, with Hugh Dancy, comes to mind). It will only take a couple hours of your day to watch it all, and if anything, at least you’ll come out having a bit more understanding and sympathy.

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