Netflix Now: Atypical (2017) Season One - Reviewed

Atypical, the new Netflix series that debuted on Friday, centers on Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), a teenager on the autism spectrum who has come to the realization that he wants to begin dating, much to the surprise of his parents, Elsa and Doug (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michael Rapaport, respectively), and sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine). At its core it is a show that tries and mostly succeeds in redefining what most would call “normal.”

The supporting players in Sam’s life illustrate that there is no standard by which we all live, and that we’re all varying degrees of messed up. Over the course of the show’s eight episodes, we learn that Elsa has dedicated so much of her life to Sam that she doesn’t know who she is or what she wants anymore. We also learn that Doug has never found a way to truly connect with Sam, and that Casey may or may not be using Sam as an excuse to ignore her own emotional issues. In other words, Sam’s romantic aspirations are just another element to the show, beautifully blended in with his family’s struggles.

Sam’s closest relationship is with his therapist, Julia (Amy Okuda) with whom he also develops a crush, and the method by which we learn the most about him. Many of Sam and Julia’s scenes are intercut with sequences of Sam trying to navigate the complicated waters of his senior year in high school, as well as facts about Antarctica and the wildlife, particularly penguins, that populate the South Pole, as that is Sam’s preferred way of relating to the world.

I really enjoyed Atypical on a character level, but also an emotional one. I found everyone on the show to be engaging, and with each new episode I was even more invested in their arcs. On an emotional level, I found Sam’s approach to the world and his misunderstandings about relationships to be relatable. I’m not going to pretend to know what it’s like to be autistic, nor do I have any expertise in the field of mental health. But I do know what it’s like to feel like an outcast, even when one is surrounded by those who love and support them. Sam just cannot figure people out, even though he tries. He uses rules and checklists to try and pigeonhole people into one category or another, somewhat based on his knowledge of penguins and their mating rituals, only to realize that everyone is unique, just like him. Similarly, the surrounding characters are all struggling to find their own version of normal, which forces them to deal with their own issues instead of just focusing on Sam.

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Of those characters, the one who took me by surprise the most was Doug, as Rapaport can be somewhat of an acquired taste depending on the role. In Atypical, he’s perfectly cast as a father who just wants to understand and bond with his son. When the prospect of dating comes up, Sam chooses to talk to Doug, much to the surprise of Elsa, with whom Sam would usually confide in. Rapaport’s performance hits just the right note as a parent desperate to be involved in his son’s life. Unsurprisingly, as his relationship with Sam gets better, his relationship with Casey begins to strain, which adds a nice amount of tension to the family dynamic.

I also enjoyed Lundy-Paine’s performance as the younger, yet still protective sister of Sam. You genuinely believe Sam and Casey are brother and sister in their scenes together. One minute Casey is teasing Sam for being weird and the next she’s sticking up for him if and when some other character asks why Sam seems “off.” Her romantic life also parallels Sam’s, especially when it comes to accurately expressing her emotions for someone she cares about.

Having conflicting emotions may be the best way to describe every character in the show, but Elsa’s arc may be the most complicated, if not completely original. Leigh gets top billing and also gets a producer credit, but the show is more of an ensemble with Sam at its center. I found Leigh’s performance to be fine, but at times a bit disconnected from the material. She’s struggling, like everyone else, yet Leigh herself comes across as bored, rather than invested.

Despite her fluctuating performance, my enjoyment of the show never waned, and I sincerely hope Atypical gets renewed for another season. I know there have been some complaints and criticisms from those with autism when it comes to underrepresenting and/or misrepresenting the autistic community, as well as Gilchrist’s performance. I don’t think it’s fair for me to weigh in, except to say that from my perspective, I found Gilchrist to be a wonderful actor who gives an earnest and honest performance as Sam. I also think that show’s creator, Robia Rashid, has done a great job at building a world of rich and complicated characters, while at the same time adding to the ongoing conversation about autism and its portrayal in the media.

Atypical may not be perfect, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be. Like the wonderful characters that populate the show, it’s just trying to figure itself out. Who among us isn’t? 


-Matt Giles