Atypical Advanced Review
Created By: Robia Rashid
Starring: Keir Gilchrist, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Rapaport, Amy Okuda
A review by Reed DeLuca
Atypical is part of what appears to be a new direction Netflix is taking with its programing: the examination of neurodiversity. This could be an interesting direction for Netflix to take. Neurodivergent people such as myself have long been desperate to see ourselves on screen in accurate and complex portrayals.
In its case, Atypical, tells the story of Sam (Keir Gilchrist), an eighteen-year-old boy with autism, and his upper-middle class white family.
The show’s structure works well with this. Sam’s narration comes from his sessions with his therapist, Julia (Amy Okuda). In his sessions, Sam works out his feelings and the feelings of the people around him. Julia helps Sam process things like why a girl thought his smile was “creepy.” Instead of the audience having to make an inference that Sam doesn’t know the subtleties of a flirtatious smile, we’re shown the why and the hows. Atypical gives Sam the space for self-reflection, and that’s perfect for the show on so many levels.
First of all, it’s great for representation of characters on the autistic spectrum. Sometimes people with autism have to take the space to examine their emotions and the emotions of the people around them. But it’s also nice just as a viewer. It’s rare that television characters get the space to acknowledge and cope with the things happening within and around them.
However, Sam is not the only focus of Atypical. The show also examines his family members: his mother,
But even in this space where Atypical succeeds in showing part of what someone on the spectrum’s life is like, there is also a failure. Several, in fact.
The crux of Atypical is that Julie, Sam’s therapist, and Sam himself believe it’s time for Sam to start dating. Sam is eighteen and – as Julia rightly points out – he may not live at home with his mother forever.
And so, in typical television fashion, Sam immediately strikes out on a quest for a girlfriend. While yes, the topic of a person on the spectrum seeking love and companionship is a question worth exploring (see 2015’s Aspie Seeks Love) I’m beyond frustrated with the heteronormative script Atypical takes.
Not only does the show hyper-focus on getting Sam laid but his interactions with women move from sweet fumblings over how to smile at a girl to creepy and violent. He hits the first girl who plans to take his virginity. Later breaks into his therapist’s home after developing a crush on her.
The latter is especially heinous when told by the narrative that Sam has been working on learning boundaries his entire life. You’d think the boundary of ”breaking into homes isn’t okay” would have already been explained.
Sam is hyper-concerned with sex. I believe that this is an attempt for the show to make him “relatable” to all viewers. This is a tragic mistake since firstly, the joke that exists in Sam’s attempt to break into Julia’s house lies in the viewer finding that kind of behavior funny and secondly – perhaps more importantly – this fixation on heterosexual sex ignores the experiences of LGBTQ people on the autistic spectrum.
Sam isn’t the only character that Atypical shoehorns into heterosexuality. Sam’s sister Casey, played by Brigette Lundy-Paine, looks like the lesbian girl of my dreams, yet she has a totally unnecessary boyfriend.
In fact, Casey’s boyfriend only becomes relevant to the plot in the final episodes when Casey discovers her mother’s affair. They have sex – which is presented as a self-destructive choice for Casey – and he says that he loves her. It’s boring, and it’s bad.
Casey looks out for Sam at school. She’s responsible for his lunch money. Why is never explained to us and I have some questions, but I’ll hold them for now. She’s also his protector. Sam remarks that Casey doesn’t allow anyone to make Sam feel bad, except for herself.
We see Casey hit Sam and tease him repeatedly throughout the show. It’s rather upsetting, honestly, considering the show’s subject matter. We know, as viewers, that Sam doesn’t like to be touched. Casey hits him. We also know that Sam and Casey’s mother, Elsa (played by a bland Jennifer Jason Leigh), is extremely protective of Sam. Why this behavior has been allowed to continue is beyond me.
Furthermore, when Casey is offered a track scholarship to an expensive private school, she’s conflicted because it would mean leaving Sam unprotected in their public high school. I don’t get why she’d be so conflicted when she’s horrible to Sam. (And it’s not because I don’t get it – I have three younger brothers, one of whom is on the spectrum. We fight sometimes, but I have never, ever hit them.)
In fact, the drama that unfolds after Caseys offered a scholarship is entirely confusing and a bad look for Atypical.
Casey’s team feels betrayed by the possibility of her leaving their school and act their feelings out on her. They trick her into trying on a dress at a store and then run away with her real clothes, leaving her trapped.
The mothers of Casey’s teammates attempt to block a motion put forward at a PTA meeting by Sam’s girlfriend, Paige (Jenna Boyd), and Elsa to have an autism-friendly silent school dance in their act of revenge.
By pure coincidence, all of Casey’s teammates and their mothers are Black.
Adding up the nonsense that was Casey’s plotline with the still, somehow highly stereotyped way the Sam treats Sam, I don’t feel too good about Atypical.
Skip it. The stories stagger and feel unoriginal. Compulsive heterosexuality doesn’t make good TV, Netflix.