A new Netflix series came out on Friday called Atypical. This short, eight-episode show tells the story of an eighteen-year old man named Sam Gardner who has autism and is looking for a girlfriend. This premise alone should make for a simple and sweet mini-series with a good story and act as a potential eye-opener for people who aren’t very familiar with the autism spectrum.
Atypical proves that just because a show tries to make things interesting by having its main protagonist be autistic (excuse me, ‘a person with autism’ as the show tosses around at one point) doesn’t mean that it’s an automatic winner. This is especially true if the show insists on stuffing in extra subplots that a) don’t belong, and b) completely takes the focus off of what this show is supposed to be ultimately about. Now, this isn’t to say that the show has no positives at all, so in order to keep this review from getting too deep into pessimism, allow me to start with the good things.
The Good Things
Most of the cast turns in a pretty stellar job as their respective characters, adding some exceptional layers to the story that helps you root for them. While this is not the case for all, the best standouts were Keir Gilchrist as Sam and Michael Rapaport as his dad. Keir portrays a person on the spectrum in a believable and convincing way. His lack of emotional range and facial expressions works well here, and as someone on the spectrum myself, it didn’t feel like the character was just doing exactly what the actor was doing. Acting. It felt neatly grounded and even heartbreaking at times. I felt sorry for him when he made a mistake and people put him down. I laughed at some of the times he took things literally or misunderstood certain phrases (the harmless stuff, not some of the mistakes he made that had deeper consequences). It was relatable, which made a sizable chunk of the show worth watching. Michael does an excellent job as Sam’s father, making it clear that his character really just wanted to connect with Sam even when it seemed impossible to and that he wanted to be there for his family after a time when he wasn’t. Personally, I ended up rooting for him the most and felt very sorry for him when he got screwed over (more on that later).
Like I said above, the portrayal of Sam’s character was done in a convincing way that I agreed with. His weaknesses remained consistent throughout the show, which could’ve actually not happened if the writers really didn’t pay close attention. Sam’s sister Casey gets her own story arc that weaves itself well into the events of the show, and shows us what it can be like for a neurotypical person to have an autistic sibling.
The Bad Things
Unfortunately in this really brisk first season, a large portion of it is wasted on a pointless subplot where Sam’s mother is cheating on his father for reasons that don’t make sense. Even if you could piece together the reasons better than I can, none of them could justify the mother’s actions, especially when you follow the father’s character arc and recognize how faithful he has become to his family. None of the marriage drama and the cheating ties into Sam’s story at all, and is nothing more but filler to add more drama in a soap opera-y fashion. The only reason why I managed to put up with it was because I wanted to see the mother get found out. This show doesn’t disappoint with that once the moment finally comes, but it still doesn’t justify the whole arc to begin with.
Lastly, this show got the TV-MA rating. Why? I don’t ask this because there’s nothing MA about it (which there is, albeit lighter than the usual fare), but because I wonder why they felt the need to reach this level in the first place. One of the most mysterious aspects about the Netflix exclusives these days is their insistence on being on an R-rated level. Cut out the affair subplot and more than half of the jokes about women in this show, and you have a more innocent show that’s at least TV-14 about an autistic young man looking for a girlfriend. The “character” of Sam’s friend Zahid is nothing more than a lady’s man wanting to get lucky with any and all girls he can win over, and constantly gives Sam advice about sex. The show does nothing to counteract these things and point out that there’s more to it than that, but instead seems to endorse it at almost every turn. Whenever a good, legitimate point is made in the show, a bad one swoops in and replaces it in almost an instant, so I consistently found myself going through a rhythm of finding myself relaxed with the show one minute and then getting bummed out the next.
So all in all, the show has its moments, but there were too many things bogging it down for me. This is a shame, because I think this show has one of the most accurate depictions of a person on the milder side of autism I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, the good gets pounded down oftentimes by a cheating wife and an abundance of sex jokes that come off as immature and degrading.
This show gets a 5.5 out of 10 from me.
Side-Note: I’m probably going to have an article out that focuses more on the specifics of Sam’s autism in this show and how much it either comes close to the real thing or how far from it.