Television comedy expands its palette again with Atypical, the tale of an autistic teenager making his way through his senior year of high school.
Launching Friday on Netflix, Atypical is several galaxies removed from high school dramedies like Glee or Pretty In Pink.
It’s billed as a comedy and that’s true in the sense it will often induce laughter. It’s equally true that at times the viewer will be laughing because the alternative is crying.
Keir Gilchrist does a masterful job playing Sam, who has the umbrella tag of being “on the spectrum.” He has been mainstreamed in his local high school and he works at an electronics store.
He lives at home with a caring family that includes his mother Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), his father Doug (Michael Rapaport) and his slightly younger sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine).
Robia Rashid, who created Atypical and wrote all eight of the first season’s episodes, understands the challenge of autism. She understands the seemingly random obsessions and impulsive behaviors it creates and the ripple effects it has on everyone in the autistic person’s orbit, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse and sometimes both at the same time.
We get Sam’s point of view from his own voiceovers and his exchanges with his therapist Julia (Amy Okuda).
He loves penguins and repeatedly steers conversations to his comfort zone of Antarctica. He’s heard the temperature there drops so low that you can physically hear the cold, he says.
On more local and immediate matters, he’s thinking he wants a girlfriend. The problem, some of which he understands, is that he does not grasp social cues or body language. He takes words literally and he has neither filters nor a sense of appropriate social conversation. If someone has said a vulgar word and it’s stuck in his head, he will blurt it out with no regard for where he might be at the moment.
In the abstract, this can be humorous. Atypical makes it clear that in reality this makes ordinary human interaction a mountain Sam must climb every day.
It also makes clear a Catch-22 for viewers.
We want to empathize with Sam and root for him. We just have to realize we will get almost none of that back. The feelings of others don’t register with Sam in a way he can express. Saying “Oh, thank you, that’s so nice of you” is not part of his wiring, which is frustrating for others and a killer social roadblock for him.
In the larger scope, Atypical quickly and deftly frames the most heart-wrenching question faced by almost all parents and guardians of teenagers on the spectrum.
Do you try to build a protective bubble around them or do you let them plunge out into a world you know is going to be full of painful challenges and hurtful falls?
Elsa falls into the first group, fearing that Sam isn’t ready for something like trying to date. Every time the phone rings, she says, her heart already leaps into her throat, fearing there’s been an incident or an outburst and pieces that will have to be put back together.
Julia says if Sam wants a girlfriend, he should figure out how to go for it.
Buckle up, everyone.
Almost every viewer’s favorite character, outside of Sam, will be Casey. She’s a track athlete whose long-term goal is to get out of this town and whose short-term goal is to shred anyone who picks on her brother.
Her dislike of bullies indirectly leads her to meet a boy, Evan (Graham Rogers), which throws her off because she has always told herself that the hard focus of her life precludes inessential things like dating.
Casey provides some uncomplicated humor, which is good because much of the rest comes with a double edge.
On the one side, Sam’s a plucky fellow. He doesn’t spend much time feeling sorry for himself, and that gives us permission, as the shrinks say, to enjoy the humor in some of his social stumbles and wildly inappropriate conversation.
On the other hand, Atypical reminds us that while life is tough for all teenagers, even the most ordinary and easy things can bruise Sam.
In an age when TV writers have mined quality comedy from fields like physical disability and clinical depression (Speechless, You’re The Worst), Sam isn’t a total pioneer.
But Atypical never lets us forget that life on the spectrum is more hard than humorous.