Atypical Is a Sensitive Look at Life With Autism

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Keir Gilchrist, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Michael Rapaport in Atypical. Photo: Greg Gayne/Netflix

At a key moment in Atypical — the new Netflix series about an 18-year-old on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum — the protagonist, Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), has a serious meltdown. As directed by Michael Patrick Jann in an episode written by series creator Robia Rashid (How I Met Your Mother), the viewer is placed inside Sam’s head as he becomes overwhelmed by sensory overload. We see, as he does, the world turning washed-out and blurry. We hear, like Sam, how the most minor sounds — the jangling of the charms on a bracelet worn by a woman sitting a few seats away on a bus — become magnified to the point of deafening.

It’s an effective way to capture what autism must feel like at its most crippling, and a scene that represents what Atypical is capable of when it’s at its best. Like Parenthood, which often focused on how Max Braverman’s Asperger syndrome affected him and his immediately family members, Atypical traces Sam’s daily travails as well as those involving his parents (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michael Rapaport), his sister (Brigette Lundy-Paine), and his therapist (Amy Okuda). Because it’s a 30-minute comedy, albeit with elements of drama, Atypical also is slightly reminiscent of Speechless, the ABC sitcom about the DiMeos, whose eldest son has cerebral palsy.

Actually, though, Atypical occupies a space that exists somewhere between those two cited examples. It’s more adult and actively serious than Speechless, yet not as sentimental or tear-jerking as Parenthood. It takes its time with individual scenes more than traditional network comedies, but its sense of humor can skew just as lowbrow. Sometimes realism acts as its North Star, while during others, hyperbole dominates, usually for the sake of laughs. (At one point, a girl who is extremely angry at Sam shows up on his front lawn and slits the throat of a stuffed penguin she had planned to give him for Christmas. It’s supposed to be funny. It’s a little much.)

All that said, Atypical has enough heart and wonderfully natural performances to navigate those mood shifts without hitting too many disruptive bumps. Anyone who has first-hand experience with autism will especially appreciate the fact that this series exists.

The first season, which consists of eight episodes, spends almost as much time on its characters’ love lives as their intrafamilial relationships. Sam has reached an age where he wants to seek romantic connection but is confused about how to do it. He has inappropriate feelings for Julia, his therapist, and also gets involved with a high-strung classmate, Paige (a wonderfully unable-to-chill Jenna Boyd), who has genuine feelings for Sam that he has no idea how to handle.

His best friend, Zahid (Nik Dodani), is always offering him the bro-iest possible advice, even taking him to a strip club so he can see what bare breasts look like before he gets to second base with Paige. In a refreshingly realistic moment, Sam immediately exits that club because all the flashing lights and loud music stress him out too much. In an annoyingly unrealistic moment that occurs just seconds later, a stripper hears Sam’s story then randomly shows him her boobs in what is supposed to be an amusing act of altruism, but could easily be a deleted scene from an American Pie movie. Like I said, the tone can shift from on to slightly off pretty quickly on this show. (Seth Gordon, who is one of the executive producers and directs some of the episodes, has a track record that can be on — he directed Horrible Bosses — and off — he directed Baywatch — too).

Casey, Sam’s sister, is also adjusting to having her first boyfriend and continuing to shoulder the burden of serving as her brother’s keeper during school hours, while, more scandalously, Elsa, Sam’s mother, is having an affair with a younger bartender. As for Doug, the emergency rescue worker and patriarch of the family, he’s still trying to figure out how to connect with his son while wrestling with feelings of shame about Sam’s condition.

All of this terrain — teen sex, mothers who use extramarital flings to vacation from their lives, kids who feel neglected because of a sibling with special needs — is certainly familiar. Nevertheless, we get invested because all of these experiences are happening to characters we’ve just met who, even in some of the heightened situations I alluded to, always seem like real people.

The performances by both Leigh and Rapaport have a particularly lived-in vibe about them. It’s especially nice to see Leigh get to flex her acting muscles on television in a multifaceted part like this. The softness that she exuded starting all the way back in Fast Times at Ridgemont High is very much on display here, but in Elsa, Leigh tempers it with weariness, worry, and an overeagerness to be Supermom. There’s something lovely about watching the star of one of the greatest all-time teen movies trying so hard to righteously mother teenagers in 2017.

Speaking of which, one of my favorite things about Atypical is that, in the mode of shows like My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks, its teenagers actually look like the kind you might run into if you walked down some locker-lined hallway at your local high school. With his intentionally flat affect and glances that always seem to be looking anywhere but at who he’s talking to, Gilchrist (It Follows, The United States of Tara) delivers a thoroughly believable and impressively consistent performance as Sam. As Casey, Lundy-Paine has an ability to project pure youthful defiance one minute, then sink into emotional neediness the next. Even the way she physically ambles through the kitchen says “Whatever, Mom” without her actually having to say the words.

All of the performances in the show are great, which is helpful since the writing occasionally slips into predictable rhythms. Zahid, for example, gets stuck in the prototypical sex-obsessed dude role, which means that virtually everything he says is either a come-on or a double entendre. (While standing in front of a poster of the Eiffel Tower, he announces how much he’d like to go to Paris so that he can chase some “poutine.”) Normally on TV or in movies, Indian-American teens get pigeonholed as geeks, so it’s nice to see this character breaking out of that mold. But giving him a bit more dimension within that framework would have been even nicer.

In other ways, though, Atypical gets its details exactly right, especially this one: that in families like the Gardners, small gestures that might not even be noticeable to the average person — like a spontaneous hug from a son to a father — can be major victories, the kind that keep you going on the days when things start melting down.

Atypical Is a Sensitive Look at Life With Autism