‘Atypical,’ About a High-Functioning Teen With Autism, Attracts Mixed Reactions

By Mark Walsh — August 18, 2017 5 min read
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“Atypical,” the new Netflix show about a high school student with autism, is attracting sharply differing reactions.

The show “is so close to great,” says the Atlantic. Entertainment Weekly calls it “heartwarming,” “very human,” and full of “affection for its messy, relatable characters.” Forbes calls it “the best show Netflix has ever made.”

But USA Today deemed it “saccharine” and “predictable.” Salon called it “offensive,” with “a dull plot and strictly stock main character.”

The Hollywood Reporter says, “What starts off as a well-written, pedigreed look at autism, made with both humor and heart—giving the first impression that Netflix has a high-caliber new scripted series on its hands—suddenly makes a series of bone-headed network-television-level decisions that reduce ‘Atypical’ to a set of easily digestible, ‘TGIF'-styled 30-plus-minute installments of disappointment.”

Wow. So what’s all the fuss about?

Atypical” is Netflix’s first school-related series since last spring’s controversial “13 Reasons Why,” about teenage suicide. The latter show was a huge hit among young viewers but also caused consternation among educators and other observers over its explicit depiction of a suicide and sexual assaults.

“Atypical” is much lighter, with comic moments tinged with plenty of drama. (Thus some put it in the “dramedy” category.) The show centers around Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), an 18-year-old with high-functioning autism who attends a suburban high school and works at a Best Buy-type electronics store.

Sam’s obsessions are penguins and Antarctica, lists and rules, and his growing self-awareness of the need to embrace adulthood. And his interest in the opposite sex. He processes much of what he reads and hears in literal terms, so it is up to his younger sister, Casey (Brigitte Lundy-Paine), and his best friend and co-worker, Zahid (Nik Dodani), to help him deal with things like sarcasm, irony, and purchasing condoms.

Casey is quite protective of Sam at school when the need arises (and she even punches another girl who had teased a different student over her weight), but she is perfectly willing to act like a normal sister at home, which means gently teasing Sam over his wardrobe or budding love life. Zahid, who fashions himself a suave ladies man despite evidence that this is merely wishful thinking, is Sam’s wing man for escapades that include a trip to the local topless bar. (Though Sam doesn’t long.)

Sam and Casey’s parents are Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in the ultimate reversal of her defining role as a coming-of-age adolescent in 1982’s “Fast Times at Ridgmont High) and Doug (Michael Rapaport) Gardner (“Boston Public.”) They are in a sometimes tense marriage that has revolved around Sam and his issues while Casey, a star on the track team, feels neglected.

Elsa falls into an affair with a bartender (Raúl Castillo), while the oblivious and awkward Doug sometimes struggles with the challenges of parenting a teenager on the autism spectrum. At the autism support group Elsa attends, Doug tags along one night, only to be chided for referring to his “autistic” son (and thus not using people-first language.) Some critics found it implausible that the father with years of experience with a child with autism would not be familiar with that matter of speech correctness. But it seems entirely believable given that Doug had skipped off from the family for several months when Sam was first diagnosed as a child. And Elsa matter-of-factly tells the group that her family simply doesn’t use people-first language at their home.

The eight-episode first season of “Atypical,” which became available on Netflix on Aug. 11, mostly revolves around Sam’s budding romance with fellow Newton High School student Paige (Jenna Boyd), who is so gushingly energetic that she unnerves Sam in his bedroom and he briefly locks her in the closet.

Meanwhile, Sam has an earnest young therapist, Julia (Amy Okuda), and he soon decides that he is really in love with her. Sam is so harshly honest with this realization that he blurts it out when he is meeting Paige’s family at the Olive Garden.

Julia properly deflects Sam’s romantic interest as ethically inappropriate, but not before some troublesome misunderstandings.

“Atypical” doesn’t show us much about Sam’s actual education, although he is in class or doing his homework at times, often with noise-canceling headphones around his ears. We learn that he once had an educational aide (apparently as part of an individualized education program), but does without in what seems to be his senior year.

Meanwhile, Casey’s character is also richly developed. She attracts a bad-boy boyfriend and is wooed by a rich private school because of her prowess on the track. Since her presence at the public high school is a safety net for Sam, Casey has to weigh the impact of going to the private school on that.

Characters with disabilities are somewhat in vogue on TV these days, with ABC’s “Speechless” featuring a teenager with cerebral palsy (played by an actor who has the condition) and this fall, ABC is launching “The Good Doctor,” about a surgeon with autism and savant syndrome. The actor in that show (Freddie Highmore) does not have those conditions. Likewise, Gilchrist does not have autism. (He played a gay teenager in the quirky dramedy “United States of Tara” a few years ago and a clinically depressed teen in the movie “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.”)

Of all the critical reactions to the show, perhaps the one from The Guardian is most on the mark by being torn about it. Just as Sam is apt to draft pro-and-con lists (including one when he is deciding whether to date Paige, which of course she discovers), the Guardian’s Leslie Felperin came up with detailed pro’s and con’s for “Atpical.”

Among the pros, according to Felperin: The show’s dialogue is funny, and it insightfully explores the family dynamic surrounding one member with autism. The cons: the “autism 101" lectures, Leigh is “miscast” as mom Elsa, and the show’s insistence on spotlighting a high-functioning person with autism and thus failing to highlight one who lacks verbal abilities.

Still, after binge-viewing the first season, which left some issues unresolved, I was ready for more.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.