Netflix’s Atypical is touching, hilarious, and just occasionally cringe-worthy

The Netflix series Atypical, created by Robia Rashid, was recently renewed for a third season after a largely positive reception. The show ostensibly portrays the journey of Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), an 18-year-old high school senior on the autism spectrum, as he navigates the turbulent teenage waters of dating, school, and family. In season 1, the plot revolves around Sam’s desire to start dating: a topic that is encouraged by his therapist and his loveable sidekick Zahid (Nik Dodani), yet approached with great trepidation by his overbearing mother Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

The first season is dappled with heartwarming yet hilarious moments as Sam finds himself attracted to his therapist Julia (Amy Okuda) before deciding to embark on a mission to find himself a “practice girlfriend”, creating lists and rituals to help him maneuver the social nuances of the dating world.  At the same time, his family dynamics begin to steadily change in the background, as his younger sister and fierce defender Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) receives an athletic scholarship to a prestigious private school and leaves Sam to fend for himself in their hometown public school. Not to mention their mother Elsa’s midlife crisis after being stuck in this role of overprotective mother for 18 years before slowly realizing her children, including Sam, are becoming independent beings: As such, it would seem Elsa had no choice but to sleep with a local bartender, an act that starts the slow dismantling of their previously strong family unit. 

Image borrowed from Acculturated.com

Image borrowed from Acculturated.com

The theme of season two revolves around Sam coping with change as he learns of his parents’ separation, attempts with futility to find a new therapist, and prepares to graduate high school into the “abyss”, a term coined by his guidance counsellor. The side plots strengthen in this season as Casey works to fit into her new school and track team, developing a close relationship with new acquaintance Izzie and eventually questioning whether she has romantic feelings for her; as well as the less engaging subplot of former counsellor Julia who learns she is pregnant and naturally blames her “hormones” for the previous loss of temper at Sam that had ended their therapeutic relationship. Most notably, in this season Sam joins a peer group for fellow students on the autism spectrum and gains the confidence to pursue a university program, despite, of course, the hesitation of his ever-exasperating mother.

Atypical has had its share of criticism, much of it from parents of children on the autism spectrum who have critiqued the show’s stereotypical portrayal of the disorder: indeed, Sam’s repetitive hand gestures and body-rocking while under stress are textbook examples while his fixations with Antarctica’s penguins are an uncanny demonstration of the often-restricted interests seen in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). There is no doubt that Sam likewise embodies the ASD hallmark of social impairment, as well, going through life taking everything much too literally (to the point where he attempts to write his college application essay on his “greatest accomplishment” of convincing a strip-club dancer to show him her breasts), struggling to understand the “rules” of romantic relationships, and often needing the emotions of his peers and family laid out on the table for him. In this manner, the protagonist no doubt checks off perhaps a few too many boxes from the DSM-V. ASD parents have also criticized the show’s negligence to cast a main character who does not have autism, despite Gilchrist’s convincing portrayal. This was addressed in season two when the show hired 8 actors with ASD to play the members of Sam’s peer group: a decision that no doubt contributed to the success, authenticity, and stigma-breakdown of the show.

Photo borrowed from Medium.com

Photo borrowed from Medium.com

Perhaps the hardest-hitting criticism of the show is that fact that Atypical has cast a brilliant, good-looking, verbally eloquent and talented protagonist who is without a doubt on the high-functioning end of the spectrum. This fact is addressed within the show itself when Sam’s mom and dad mention it at their parental support group, but this has not resonated well with some viewers who feel as though the ASD population is being misrepresented.

Criticisms aside, this show is about more than a young person with autism (a theme that is cleverly embedded when Sam’s father gets lectured about needing to use person-first language: “My son has autism” as opposed to “my son is autistic”). Robia Rashid has shared, herself that the primary theme of Atypical is about family.

I have to say that she navigates the dynamics of the Gardner family truly beautifully as they walk through a season of change. The teenagers are portrayed with unadulterated, impulsive, hormone-driven adolescent authenticity and the adults are represented as the frequently-insecure but ever-loving parents too often found off-screen as well. This story is about a family as its children transition to adulthood and their parents think twice about what had brought them together in the first place. It is also about the Gardners’ attempt to remain a family after these hardships and to redefine just that this word means to them.

In my opinion, the best part of this show is the character of Casey Gardner, Sam’s sister. Brigette Lundy-Paine absolutely knocks it out of the ballpark each time. She perfectly balances the protective sister role simultaneously with the character of irritating younger-sister, who regularly wrestles Sam on the couch and calls him out for writing the “garbage” aforementioned college application essay about seeing a stripper’s breasts. One of the first episodes of the show involves Casey punching a school bully in the face and setting the context for the fiercely protective sister that she is. The relationship between Sam and Casey develops throughout the show and is dappled with heartwarming moments that present when least expected, not the least of which is when Sam presents Casey with a set of pencils as a back-to-school present, telling her “I’m your big brother. I can take care of you sometimes too.” I adored watching this brother-sister duo grow together, bicker endlessly, perform a dance routine, and fearlessly hunt down the Ickle Bickle Beanstalk (if you have seen the show, you know what this is, and if you have not, then maybe don’t ask).

All in all, this show is worth the watch. Not only for the pure entertainment but also for the hard-hitting social commentary. You may not agree with everything it portrays, and that is more than alright. I have no doubt that Rashid willingly opened herself up to the strongest of critiques by voluntarily creating this show. However, it is evident in every single scene that a great deal of heart, soul, and research has been put into developing “Atypical”. So enjoy it for what it is, and critique it with empathy.