Atypical returns for a second season, September 7th on Netflix.
By Jaya Daniel
Normal is overrated, at least according to the tagline for Atypical. The series centers on Sam (Keir Gilchrist), a high school senior who is on the spectrum. His autistic behaviors have isolated him from feeling “normal,” but all he wants is to be like all the other kids in his school – date, go shopping, etc. Encouraged by his therapist, Sam strives for more independence from his mom and sets out to get himself a girlfriend.
A big complaint last year about Sam’s portrayal is that he’s simply a jerk and the show is acting as if that’s what it’s like to be on the spectrum; that even though he is a high-functioning person with autism, his behavior should be much more self-actualized. But, when I watched him behave poorly – such as locking his girlfriend Paige in a closet for touching his stuff and then later breaking up with her in front of her family at the Olive Garden, or screaming out ridiculous pick-up lines on dates because that’s what his research told him to do – I never associated it with Sam being a jerk. I saw it more as Sam being inexperienced and just not knowing better because his actions were never meant to be mean.
Sam admits he can feel empathy once he knows that he has hurt someone’s feelings, but has a hard time knowing when he does something that is hurtful. And, his inability to understand the emotions of others seems more the fault of his mother, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. As the case with many parents of children with disabilities, their child’s life becomes their life. In this case, Elsa (Leigh) is too busy coddling her son to let him learn how to be with people honestly. She even gets herself kicked out of a store for getting into a fight with a clerk because the store wouldn’t lower the music, dim the lights and get Sam a private dressing room. But, now that Sam is starting to interact with other people, Paige in particular, you see that he’s learning to modify his behavior.
The supporting cast is mostly made up of Sam’s family. Elsa, who doesn’t know what to do with herself now that Sam is starting to insert his independence, starts making poor life decisions. But, her character isn’t one you root for because the series portrays her as more of a smothering mother than a person of her own. Michael Rapaport plays Sam’s dad Doug and is only now starting to connect with his son because of his interest in girls. Sam’s sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) is the most developed of the entire series. She treats Sam like she would any sibling, but at the same time would never let anyone else hurt him. She’s a rising track star with a cute, ‘bad boy’ boyfriend, played by Quantico’s Graham Rogers, but struggles with balancing what she wants with what’s best for Sam. Her relationship with her brother is admirable and may be the best part of the show.
Others include Sam’s best friend Zahid (Nik Dodani), who is pretty much just a horny teenager looking to help his friend have sex, and Amy Okuda who plays Julia, Sam’s therapist. Julia becomes the object of Sam’s affections and the reason he begins his quest to find a girlfriend. Her existence was a great tool for us to hear Sam’s narrations throughout the series, but once her story starting becoming more extensive, it felt like an unnecessary distraction from the show.
As an outsider looking in, I find the show sweet, endearing and funny, while still being sensitive to Sam’s feelings of sadness and not fitting in. But, I’ve heard many people who are on the spectrum have issues with how they feel autism is portrayed in the series, and I can understand why. Sam, in many cases, is treated as a punchline. His idiosyncrasies are constantly being used to make a joke, but then on the other end, Atypical is asking people to be sensitive to those with autism. As someone who is usually pretty disconcerted by the way Indians are portrayed in entertainment, I can understand the disappointment. It sends mixed messages for the sake of entertainment.
This second season gives the series time to flesh out Sam’s character and make him more than someone who is trying to be “normal.” His relationship with Paige helps expand his horizons, and the series finds its footing by just telling a story rather than trying to serve the audience with an 8-episode PSA.