I have Asperger’s Syndrome.
This is crucial to my character, but it’s not something that defines me. My personality isn’t merely specified by being on the spectrum. Though my brain operates differently and my thought process might be alien to yours, I’m not merely a man with Asperger’s Syndrome. Not that I’m embarrassed or ashamed of my so-called “disorder,” but it’s necessary to make this distinction when the media feels as if having high-function autism is the be-all, end-all of who you are, how you act, and how you think and feel. Especially when Netflix unveils Atypical, a well-meaning, if fairly misshapen, original dramedy series that attempts to explore what your average middle-class family living with someone with Asperger’s Syndrome deals with on a regular, day-to-day basis.
The Aspergian here is Sam Gardener (Keir Gilchrist), an 18-year-old Artic-loving introverted high schooler who wants to learn about love, sex and modern relationships. Guiding him along the way are his adoring, overprotective parents, helicopter mom Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and good-natured everyman Doug (Michael Rapaport), his heavily sarcastic, athletic younger sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine, a real find), his best friend/Textropolis co-worker/self-proclaimed ladies man Zahid (Nik Dodani), and his therapist, 20-something Julia Sasaki (Amy Okuda). Together, they all try to protect and guide Sam through the difficulties of life and the young romantic scene, though nearly all of them wind up troubled with their own issues, difficulties and problems, which wreck and redefine their own stability and sanity. It’s a cute, innocuous premise, admittedly, though one that wouldn’t be a stranger on NBC’s Thursday weepy, very melodramatic lineup, notably behind shows like Parenthood, About a Boy or This Is Us.
That’s not to say that Atypical isn’t aiming for something a little more substantial. Indeed, it does try to say something about the state of modern autism culture and how, even as our general society grows more progressive and understanding, there are still many hurdles and challenges to overcome. But the main problem with Atypical — at least when it comes to its first season — is that it doesn’t propel the conversation because it doesn’t have enough to offer. Through Sam, we get a glib, friendly, mostly likable, but not entirely authentic portrayal of young people on the spectrum. Based on how he’s presented here, both for comedic and dramatic purposes, he’s at best an extreme portrayal of young Asperger’s syndrome or, at worst, an absolute stereotype. I’ve met and interacted with several people diagnosed on the spectrum, and I struggle to find anyone that’s instantly relatable to Sam. We’re all, of course, our own unique snowflakes in this weird, wild world of ours, but Atypical presents the life of an Aspergerian individual as too heightened and broadened for its own functioning good.
Similar to last year’s infuriating The Accountant, Atypical uses its autistic protagonist as a mechanism for the story, rather than fleshing him out in any important, meaningful way. Often, Sam’s diagnosis is what separates Atypical (if only mildly) from your average white American dramedy series, but he’s more “quirky” than distinguishable. There are some things they get right. He’s prone to invading people’s personal spaces, rambling without consideration for others about his present troubles or concerns, while never making full eye contact. He’s often seen with headphones — around his neck if they’re not around his ears — which cancel outside noises. He’s sensitive to bright lights, and his intense interest in Antarctic birds and mammals gets into every tangent.
But Atypical walks a fine line between making Sam’s autism goofy for the laughs and being genuinely sincere. It’s an odd, unenviable balance that Atypical tries to migrate with charm and broad smiles, but it’s never quite enough to make it cut below the skin. This is one of those shows where characters put their hand on other people’s shoulders and proclaim that “Nobody’s normal.” Yeah, it’s one of those shows. Take it as you will. It also doesn’t help that Atypical tries to use autism to blanket some of Sam’s creepy and inappropriate behavior — as if it can all be made excusable since he’s on the spectrum. One often gets the sense that the creators don’t necessarily understand or appreciate the depths and intricacies of having Asperger’s Syndrome, and while that’s not to say that they’re lazy or intentionally offensive here, many scenes did rub me the wrong way.
Thankfully, Gilchrist’s thoughtful, soulful performance is what helps creator Robia Rashid (How I Met Your Mother) achieve some authentically warm and rich sincerity with her first show-running effort. Measured in its emotions and palpable in its enthusiasm, Gilchrist’s lead turn is truly the key to whatever success Atypical is able to mine in these first eight half-hour(ish) episodes. It’s a caring, considerable performance that’s far from cloying — even when the writing/directing tries very hard to be — and filled with quiet resonance by the last couple installments. Gilchrist already impressed me in It’s Kind of a Funny Story and It Follows, but Atypical really proves his vulnerable range.
Whenever the material ventures into territory that’s too cutesy or too oversimplified, Gilchrist centralizes it with his winning winsomeness and hearty wholesomeness. It’s thanks to him that Atypical works at all, though that’s not to decry the exceptionally talented supporting cast. Jason Leigh, also a producer here, is always good, and this show is no exception. Even with all the cliches hurled at her character throughout the season, Jason Leigh brings a real humility and overwhelmed fragility that really works.
But Rapaport is the one that really impresses here. Among the more underrated actors working today, Rapaport’s Doug is easily the most believable character and the one we’re inclined to root for the most. Even when his shameful past comes to light in later episodes, you feel for his struggle, his desire to simply be the good dad he should’ve been years ago. It’s not the kind of performance everyone can sell, but Rapaport knows how to make us invest in his optimistic schlub, and it’s the perfect role for his talents. And Lundy-Paine is a real find. She brings an exceptional amount of confidence and openness that really helps capture the kind of “smart, capable but not quite as self-dependent as she’d hope to be” teenager that she plays here. She could really go places.
It’s the performances that save the bland writing and the formulaic narratives. They make you invest in the characters, who aren’t fully developed in the scripts, and they each hone and embody their personalities well enough that you actually care about them, as if they were friends or people you know well. That’s the beauty of television, and Atypical — for all its faults — is not averse to that. It might try too hard to make you like it, but it almost begrudgingly wins you over by the very end. You grow to like it almost in spite of yourself. While that’s not the best way to win an audience, it works.
Atypical isn’t necessarily condescending or offensive in its first season. Quite frankly, it’s mostly too bland and unassuming to reach those heights. For some viewers, that might make it worse, but for me, that’s probably for the best. Better to make something appealing, if slight, than something egregiously awful or, worse, utterly self-righteous. Atypical doesn’t quite have enough going for it, but at least it doesn’t overstep its boundaries. Mostly. It plays it comfortably cozy, and that’s enough for the binge crowd. Not enough to make it a great show, of course, or maybe even a good one, but it’s at least pleasant in its approach and good-natured in its execution. I’m sure everyone involved with Atypical wants to put their best foot forward, and they succeed enough to make it appealing and almost incredibly mild. Will that help it win enough followers to give it the full series treatment? Based on its recent season two renewal, it’s working for somebody.
Atypical doesn’t necessarily play it safe, but it prefers to keep it soft and fairly familiar. It’s not quite a winner, but I wouldn’t mind spending more time inside this little world. Even its follies are mostly innocent, and anything that doesn’t quite work has been done exceedingly worse in many other, weaker, and less considerable shows in the past. Is that a hearty recommendation? Not necessarily, but I wouldn’t turn you away from watching it either — especially if, like me, you care deeply about portrayals of autism in modern films and television. The jokes aren’t strong, but they’re amusing. The characters aren’t fully fleshed out, but you care enough to overlook their faults — both the written ones and the ones they shouldn’t have. It’s appealing mediocre TV, and as far as predictable, middling dramatic sitcoms are concerned, you could certainly do worse.
What I’m saying is, it’s not The Big Bang Theory and for that, we should all be grateful.