tv review

As We See It Confirms Jason Katims’s Elite Tearjerker Status

Photo: Amazon Prime Video

Jason Katims is an impresario of earnestness, and the weapons he uses to wring a tear are well-established. Characters yearning for connection — friendship, love, acceptance — are placed in enclosed communities with their own sets of rules and rituals. Handheld camerawork, with the lens placed alongside, behind, and quite close to people’s faces, long takes, and minimal cuts provide an immersive kind of intimacy. Being alive is hard work, and changing ourselves might be even harder. Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, and About a Boy were all variations on a certain template of longing, and his latest, As We See It, continues that bittersweet tradition.

During the course of the first season’s eight episodes, all of which are available for streaming on Prime Video today, three 25-year-olds who have been friends since preschool live together in a California apartment. They feel unfulfilled by their jobs and slightly jealous of the lives their peers show off on Instagram. They go on bad dates, and they try to make new friends. They drink, they do drugs, and they watch porn. And they are all living on the autism spectrum, with various manifestations of their neurodivergence.

Violet (Sue Ann Pien) is desperate to lose her virginity, obsessed with being “cool,” and resents her older brother Van (Chris Pang) for his overprotectiveness. How is she supposed to be “normal,” get married, and have children if Van drives her to work every day at Arby’s, controls her money, and won’t let her use dating apps? Jack (Rick Glassman) is a brilliant computer programmer who says almost everything he thinks, whether that means insulting his boss or sparring with his father Lou (Joe Mantegna). And while Violet and Jack can hold down jobs, Harrison (Albert Rutecki) is quite shy and so agoraphobic that he can’t walk down the block alone. (According to the series’s promotional materials, all three actors “identify as being on the spectrum.” That intentional inclusiveness also extends to the series’s promotional artwork, which was designed by an artist with autism, Amina Mucciolo.)

Responsible for the trio’s well-being, emotional development, and social acclimation is Mandy (Sosie Bacon, of Mare of Easttown), an aspiring doctor whose salary is paid partially by the three roommates and partially by their families. Bacon gives Mandy warmth through her gentle eyes and firmness via the even-keeled, unwavering tone she uses to defend the roommates, either from outside authorities (the police officer who calls Harrison “slow”), their own family members (the constantly frustrated Van, Harrison’s ashamed parents), or each other. In typical Katims fashion, though, Mandy’s ability to hold it together in one aspect of her life doesn’t signal calmness elsewhere. As one character after another approaches Mandy romantically and asks her to change her life for them, As We See It places us next to and slightly behind Mandy, our view aligned with her eyes and the questions bubbling there. If she were to go to medical school, what would happen to the roommates? And if she were to stay, what would happen to her own dreams?

The series makes messy personal-professional boundaries a narrative go-to, but the ensemble’s distinct performances help to differentiate those story lines. And perhaps there is deliberation here in crafting similar narratives for the core three characters but then making their reactions so different — a subtextual way of arguing against the assumption that there is one recognizable quality of neurodivergence, one way people on the spectrum should react to things or one way to be a person with autism.

As We See It rejects that narrowness by highlighting the actors’ contrasting performance styles. Glassman’s pitiless directness and abrupt line deliveries as Jack provide some of the series’s humor — “I got terminated … for being a genius.” “Mandy smiles all the time, and it makes me sick to my stomach.” — but his initial persona mutates over the season into someone who asks about others before speaking about himself. Violet is quick to affection and quick to anger, and Pien’s elastic facial expressions are a conduit for her character’s rapidly shifting emotional states. Her smirk when she flirts with bad-boy fry-delivery guy Julian (Casey Mills) is hilariously conniving, while her sobs during a disappointing 26th-birthday party are devastating. Harrison is sensitive and welcoming as he easily befriends 10-year-old neighbor AJ (Adan James Carrillo), and then Rutecki heart-wrenchingly communicates Harrison’s disappointment when he realizes his lack of independence — exactly what he and AJ have in common — might also put the child in danger. “What’s the big deal about normal?” Douglas (Andrew M. Duff), another neurodivergent person from the roommates’ Drama Club, asks Violet, and it’s to the credit of Katims, the As We See It cast, and the series’s writing that the moment comes off as curious instead of treacle.

But there is a component of As We See It that is less successful, which is its cipher-like treatment of characters outside the immediate circle of the roommates, Mandy, and Van: people like Violet’s co-workers at Arby’s, who give her a makeover, take her out clubbing, and then ignore her; or Jack’s love interest, the nurse Ewatomi (Délé Ogundiran); or Van’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Salena (Vella Lovell). These are characters who float in and out of the story, and whose decisions push along the plot, but don’t exactly sync up with their previously established motivations. Ewatomi in particular is given a certain degree of importance to Jack, but she’s primarily a vehicle for delivering reassuring dialogue. Similarly underwritten is Mandy’s boyfriend Joel (Omar Maskati), who represents the future Mandy could have and should want but has no identity of his own.

Still, it’s hard to fault As We See It for shortchanging some of its supporting characters when it pours so much attention into its core ensemble and Katims so expertly maneuvers our affections in their favor. There are moments between Jack and Lou and Violet and Van that are so raw and vulnerable, so tapped into the primal desire to love and be loved that fuel so much of Katims’s filmography, that I thought back to Taylor Kitsch’s Tim Riggins leaving his cleats on the football field, or the eulogy Zach Gilford’s Saracen gives his absent father in Friday Night Lights, or the myriad family dinners on Parenthood — in the rain, accompanied by the sharing of a devastating medical diagnosis, or in celebration after a wedding. As We See It doesn’t fully stand alongside those shows quite yet, but the totality of these initial eight episodes leaves a strong first impression.

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As We See It Confirms Jason Katims’s Elite Tearjerker Status