The new Netflix comedy series Atypical focuses on the journey of one Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), a teenager with high-functioning autism. The 18-year-old decides to undertake the daunting (for anyone) task of finding a girlfriend. However fruitful the premise may be, Atypical fails to provide a meaningful and dynamic story.
The basic punchline of essentially every episode and the series as a whole is Sam using his obsession with Antarctica and wildlife as a way to understand the mating rituals of humans. “Penguins mate for life…” as we see a shot of his parents and their rocky marriage, etc. For Sam, it’s his way of understanding the world, for the audience, it becomes an abused metaphor. I understand the inclination to have Sam explain his love of the South Pole over and over again, as his affinity is clear, but as a storytelling device it becomes somewhat exhausting.
There are folks out there who are far more qualified than me to write about how Atypical rates at providing appropriate representation, but I will say that as a person not on the spectrum, but having some experience with some who are, Atypical leans to hard on it being a show about an “issue”.
That’s not to say there aren’t things to enjoy about the show. Sam’s mother Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) struggles to come to terms with her son’s ever-growing independence and finds way to take care of her own needs. There are some really lovely moments where Sam’s father Doug (Michael Rapaport) starts to connect with a son who he’s struggled to be close to his whole life. Sam’s sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) is the most interesting of all, a young woman on the verge of finding success having to deal with how her brother’s autism has shaped her life, and has her own dating woes. Sam does find a girlfriend at one point, an adorable quirky girl named Paige (Jenna Boyd), who provides a very cathartic moment involving a giant stuffed penguin.
Ultimately the show aims to talk about relationships under the lens of autism. Basically the premise is that no one really knows what they are doing when it comes to matters of the heart. I buy that, but what I don’t buy is the utter unprofessionalism of Sam’s 27-year-old therapist (Amy Okuda), who ends up yelling, “I don’t know what I’m doing!” at one point. The show’s too heavy to be a sitcom, and not hard-hitting enough to have me really buy this character’s journey.
Atypical provides some chuckles and is unique in its particular perspective, but ultimately struggles to find a deeper meaning or resonating tone.
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