Iona Ramsay reviews Netflix series Atypical and commends Robia Rashid for her tasteful and accurate depiction of living with autism.
Television rarely provides us with protagonists on the autistic spectrum, and far less often with an accurate depiction of autism. Many TV characters who are openly on the autistic spectrum have popularised the idea of autism as a comedic character trait, often leaving audiences ignorant of the reality of the condition. This type of degrading representation can be very damaging, as it rarely allows for the condition to be taken seriously. Robia Rashid’s Atypical, released on Netflix in 2017, has worked to break that tradition by creating an extremely true-to-life depiction of an 18-year-old living on the autistic spectrum.
In many ways, our protagonist, Sam Gardener (Keir Gilchrist), lives an exceptionally ordinary life. He is a high school senior, very interested in getting a girlfriend, and worries about what the future holds for him after he graduates. More than anything else, Sam is fascinated by marine life – particularly penguins – and often measures his human interactions against the interactions of the animals he studies. As we observe throughout the show, Sam finds it difficult sometimes to understand why those around them act the way they do, or why what they say isn’t often what they mean. When Sam faces difficulties he often turns to his therapist, Julia, who he comes to think he might be in love with. When the viewer sees the world through Sam’s eyes, it becomes very apparent that many of the situations that occur would be easily diffused if they were only explained properly. Sam’s actions (while often appearing irrational or unprovoked to those around him) make complete sense to the viewer, while the rest of the characters appear to be the ones who are incapable of understanding. Rashid, in allowing the viewer to see the world as Sam sees it, breaks down this understanding of those on the spectrum as Other, and in doing so, creates an Other out of neurotypicals instead.
Sam’s family – his parents Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Doug (Michael Rapaport), and his sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) – work through many of their own personal struggles throughout the series. Elsa’s life revolves around Sam’s wellbeing and safety, often to the detriment of herself and her family. After cheating on her husband, Elsa begins to question who she is and what is important to her out with her life as a wife and mother. Rashid’s storytelling rarely leads us to judging any character for their actions; no character is completely faultless, and we can always sympathise with them, even if we disagree with their actions or opinions. Elsa’s story resonates well, as one of a mother who is pushed into making many sacrifices for her family, leading her into making bad decisions in an attempt to escape her challenging family life. Doug, while trying, struggles to find the right words to say, causing friction in many of his relationships but particularly his and Sam’s. However, Doug’s relationship with Sam is one which massively develops over both series, as Sam starts to look to his father, rather than his mother, for advice on girls in particular. One of the stand-out relationships in Atypical is between Sam and his younger sister Casey. While Casey, as with most brother/sister relationships, goes out of her way to annoy Sam, she is arguably the most protective of him and his feelings outside the home. Casey is only fifteen but is extremely tough and independent, calling out bullies – or even her own mother – when she feels wronged or upset. However, Sam seems to be Casey’s one point of weakness, dropping anything else to be by his side when he needs her.
Through Casey, Rashid challenges assumptions about sexuality that are often made in adolescent drama. Throughout Season 1, Casey meets her first boyfriend, Evan (Graham Rogers), and their relationship is an extremely healthy and positive one. It can be rare to find a depiction of a young relationship where both parties are comfortable, happy, and respectful of one another. When Casey meets Izzie (Fival Stewart) in Season 2, after a fairly rocky introduction, the two are almost instantly infatuated with each other. The viewer is as surprised as Casey when her and Izzie’s relationship develops into more than friends, in an almost-kiss that transpires in the penultimate episode of the second season. With society’s insistence on forcing labels onto young people, it was refreshing to see a teen relationship with genuine feelings at the forefront, rather than labels or titles. Rashid has been careful not to impose any label onto Casey, as she herself is still in the process of understanding her own sexuality. I found this to be an extremely important story to tell, as many LGBTQI+ young people (particularly at age fifteen like Casey), might find themselves represented more in this state of questioning than in a character completely secure in their sexuality.
Atypical continues to be a charming and funny piece of television, while confronting weighty subject matter with great care; allowing certain issues the complexity they deserve. I’d highly recommend this genuinely touching, informative and well-handled series to anyone.