“The most literal person I know,” is how Sam (Keir Gilchrist) is described in Atypical, Netflix’s new comedy drama about a teenager with autism. It’s exactly the kind of dialogue that you can expect from the series: well-intentioned and insightful, but still risking clunky oversimplification in the name of entertainment.
Autism is a subject that’s increasingly become a part of the modern TV landscape, from BBC’s The A Word to The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper. A character with Asperger’s Syndrome as a main character? That’s never really happened before, so Netflix’s show is a hugely welcome step in a new direction, one that admirably broaches a topic that many consider taboo or incomprehensible, or simply misunderstand, due to its portrayal in the media.
Atypical spends a lot of its runtime attempting to combat such stereotypes: Sam is not a savant at mathematically deciphering secret government codes and is capable of empathising with others. But while it puts a lot of energy into trying to do the right thing, it also seems to lack focus in other departments.
“People think I don’t know when I’m being picked on, but I do,” Sam says during one poignant voiceover. “I just don’t always know why, which is worse.” Even such voiceovers, though, are few and far between – a device that feels just inconsistent enough to be distracting.
More distracting, still, is his best friend, Zahid (Nik Dodani), who encourages Sam – a teenage boy, after all – to get a girlfriend and start having sex. A young man with autism navigating the high school dating scene is a situation rife with potential and possible nuance, but because this is a comedy and needs laughs, the show gives Zahid such lines as “Get your GPS, because I’m taking you to Poon City”. It’s a jarring indulgence of sexist behaviour that could almost have come from an entirely different show.
When Sam does get a girlfriend, Paige (an intense Jenna Boyd), their relationship mostly hinges around her controlling his outbursts of facts about the Antarctica and him being rude to her. At one point, he locks her in the closet, because she’s annoying him, and she’s totally ok with it. In fact, she seems to like him even more afterwards. It’s a dynamic that could lead to frank, interesting discussions, but mostly skims along on the surface, attempting to laugh wryly at such awkwardness.
Whenever Atypical skews towards that side of its story, the series is at its weakest. Where it’s stronger is in its depiction of Sam’s family, as writer Robia Rashid takes the time to consider not only Sam’s growing pains, but the impact of his autism upon everyone around him. His dad (Michael Rapaport) is only now beginning to bond with him, as he needs advice about women, while his mum, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is so concerned about looking after him that she’s suffocatingly over-protective. Leigh delivers an excellent performance – Rapaport’s generous supporting role lets her take centre stage – raising the fascinating question of Elsa’s own behaviour, from her Post-It-note-based existence to her obsessive correction of the way other people treat, or speak to, her son.
If the show is guilty, at times, of arguably mistreating Sam in a similar way to draw a laugh out of a scene, it makes up for that in many ways with its relationship between him and his sister, Casey. Brigette Lundy-Paine is sensational as his older sibling, also protective and caring, but frustrated by the way that Sam’s autism means that her own problems and achievements get overlooked.
A record-breaking run on the athletics track is a breaking point that both snaps and strengthens family bonds – and, as Casey finds some comfort in the arms of potential suitor Evan (a likeable Graham Rogers), she becomes the best thing in the entire show: you almost wish Atypical was just about her, as she wrestles with the need to live her own life and go to college versus the desire to stay close to her brother. It’s a shame, then, that Atypical tries to balance out her romantic interest with a tempting hunk of a bar owner, who has a spark with Elsa – a subplot that derails the whole programme every time it rears its head.
Amid all of this, Sam stays almost undeveloped at times, as he attempts to reconcile his possible feelings for Paige with a crush on his therapist, Julia (an excellently complex Amy Okuda). Given dubious advice from his father, Sam’s left with little to do other than be that occasionally inappropriate young male who really likes penguins. Keir Gilchrist does an excellent job portraying him, not making eye contact very often and deliberately reading any jokes with a flat, monotonous deadpan. But were less time spent on the mum and her bartender, you suspect Keir would got more of a chance to shine and Sam would get more of a chance to grow beyond merely being the most literal person we know.
Atypical’s heart is in the right place, though – even if it takes heavy-handed dialogue about Sam’s dad not using “people-first language” to make its point. The result is likeable and deserving of praise, but can’t avoid feeling uneven, as it tries to find the balance between pushing boundaries, tickling funny bones and ticking the boxes needed for a second season. Part-conventional sitcom and part-challenging drama, if anything, Atypical would benefit from being more, well, atypical.
Atypical is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.