Netflix’s Atypical: Normal Is Overrated

Atypical is a coming-of-age black comedy created and written by Robia Rashid. At eighteen years old Sam (Keir Gilchrist) wants to do all the things “regular” teenagers do, including finding a girlfriend or “someone to have sex with” as he brutally puts it one evening at dinner with his parents (Jennifer Jason Leigh / Michael Rapaport) and younger sister (Bridget Lundy-Paine). The only difference between him and other people is that he’s on the autism spectrum and. This is his journey of  self-discovery for, but also for Elsa Gardener, Sam’s mother too, on her path as he takes his first steps of going out into the world in pursuit of more independence from his family.

Despite this show being about a teenager with autism, it’s also a family drama with family members we can relate to. All the members will grow on you. Sam’s mother Elsa Gardener became a favourite of mine from the beginning and her eccentric-natured protective matriarchal persona very much reminded me of Beth Gardener in The Big Sick. From start to finish, all the members of the family have their moments, including Sam’s sister Casey (Lundy-Paine). But it’s the conversations between Sam and his father which I found most interesting, a man who chooses not to see Sam’s disability. This is not out of spite, but out of love as a parent. He simply sees him as a person.

Sam has different relationships with the different members of his family and it’s great to watch
(Atypical, Netflix)

The series writers have to be given credit where it’s due in their skills of writing a “normal” family with realistic challenges in their scenario in such a beautiful way. Much akin to shows like Community (Abed) and Hannibal (Will Graham), I don’t believe anything is overly hyperbole in Atypical, unlike very  shows like The Big Bang Theory with Sheldon. Both Abed and Will are fascinating in their own way. But the writing of Sam and this show as a whole, seem far more sensible and not just another imitation of a stereotype (unlike TBBT). It’s not funny because of punchlines, it’s funny due to the situations they’re in (not just Sam), and there’s no laughing track.

As shown through his encounters with his therapist Julia Sasaki (Amy Okuda), Sam is brutally honest. And like many people on the spectrum, he’s highly obsessed with a few key subjects. And it happens that Sam’s main point of fixation is Antarctica. This shown in episode one ‘Antarctica’ and the episodes afterwards. His fixation was funny, but I found myself halting my laughter throughout the series as I wasn’t sure when and if it was okay to laugh. Despite being black comedy, is it okay to laugh at something like this? It’s supposed to be funny, and it is, but does that make it the right? I laughed many times, but flares went off every time I did laugh at a Sam scene.

Oh yes, I know the feeling all too well of what it means to be a loner at school
(Atypical, Netflix)

Regardless if you care about the subject of autism, I’d be surprised if you don’t fall for this show. I think most people would relate to it on some level. It’s about being different in a society that doesn’t like difference and it’s how people who overtly exhibit traits of otherness have to work harder than “normal” ones. Even something as basic as being quiet and introverted could be put into this category. Quiet and shy people have to put in ten times more work into social aspects of their lives than outgoing folk. Atypical is a good analysis of otherness that goes past the spectrum and how families have to change their ways to accommodate for these types of people in their daily lives.

The show doesn’t become monotone as the it follows all of the characters. Sam’s younger sister, Casey, faces challenges with having an older brother who relies on her at school. In addition to sports and boyfriends, and dealing with her social group, Casey has a tough time too. And their parents have their own skeletons in the closet. When Casey confronts her father about one, she learns something. This showed me that we never truly know anyone, not even our parents who we tend to know all of our lives. A good deed doesn’t wipe out the bad, nor the bad the good, but when life gets in the way, you have to move on and not become an obstacle that’s in your own way.

Casey’s devotion to Sam is endearing, and their chemistry onscreen is something special
(Atypical, Netflix)

Atypcial is a balanced blend between drama and comedy. I like comedies more that don’t have a laughing track as it makes the audience decide what’s funny and what’s not. With great performances and thought-provoking discussions about dating and growing up, but also loneliness and social anxiety too, this show is a keeper. I hope that they do a second season because I’m totally on board.

After Dear White People and Sense8, Netflix continues to critique otherness and show how society lets people who are different draw the short straw