CAST: Keir Gilchrist, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Amy Okuda, Michael Rapaport
Me and my girlfriend both have Asperger’s syndrome, a high functioning form of autism. We also love watching t.v. and movies. These two commonalities combined when I first saw the trailer for Atypical, a Netflix original series about a young teen with autism who starts dating for the first time in his life.
Autism has been portrayed fairly often in recent years in pop culture; from the obvious entries such as Rain Man to the unconfirmed theories that Sheldon Cooper is an aspie, the spectrum has become a common motif. It has been tackled with various degrees of success in terms of accurately portraying it, but also as being sympathetic to those in real life with the condition. The latter was my big worry with Atypical.
Atypical is the story of the Gardner family, and how their dynamic often hinges on the progression and regression of Sam (Keir Gilchrist), a teenager with high functioning autism who needs constant attention. His mother, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in an Emmy worthy performance) has spent her whole life monitoring Sam’s behaviors and quirks, to the point where she almost lost almost any sense of freedom or identity of her own. By contrast, his father, Doug (Michael Rapaport, equally affective and moving), has never been able to forge a relationship with him, due to his inability to grasp the complexities of his condition and never being able to do typical ‘dad’ stuff with his son. Finally, Sam’s younger sister, Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), is Sam’s caregiver, providing him with lunch money at school and defending him against bullies; it’s not a role she necessarily relishes, as it interferes with her relationship, her social life, and her promising career as a track star.
When Sam’s therapist, Julia (Amy Okuda), suggests that Sam start dating and form a relationship, the Gardners’ lives are thrown into a tailspin. As Sam begins to become more comfortable with being on his own and developing his independence, Elsa is forced to confront her own lack of independence, as she has attached her entire purpose in life on her vigilance for Sam. This leads her down a path that threatens to shatter her family irreparably. By contrast, Doug begins to finally bond with his son, as Sam’s constant questions about girls and relationships allow him to finally find a subject to relate and help him with. Casey is finally given breathing room to not have to worry about Sam, although her mom’s attempts to replace Sam’s issues with hers drives a wedge between them and occasionally leads to rebellious and poorly thought out retaliations.
The most crucial and impressive element of Atypical is how much it gets right; while my own position on the autism spectrum is higher than Sam’s in terms of overall functionality and social skills, I still find myself relating to the struggles he faces early on the series: I found it impossible to smile properly at girls without looking deranged, I made grand and often inappropriate statements of affection to women who either didn’t like me back or could never be with me for practical reasons (age, etc.), I bragged about sexual misadventures at inappropriate moments. Furthermore, Sam’s relationship with my parents mirrors my own. My mother was very hands-on until I finally had to assert myself that I was capable of being independent and handling the difficulties of life and relationships, as well as basic tasks I struggled with when I was younger. My dad, like Doug, struggled for years to find common ground with me, but eventually we developed a healthy, loving and thriving relationship. And my younger sister has always looked out for me, often to chagrin of my ego and the idea that a little sister shouldn’t have to look out for her older brother.
Special credit must go to Gilchrist, who portrays Sam with a genuine sense of understanding and sympathy. It is very obvious he did the homework for the role, so to speak. His performance is up there with Hoffman in Rain Man as one of the most accurate and touching portrayals of those on the spectrum. The show’s creator, Robia Rashid, also gets huge plaudits from me, as she is largely responsible for the show’s success in handling its subject matter.
Atypical is essential viewing for families who have relatives on the autism spectrum, or just for people looking to understand the complexities of it with a better understanding.