One of the challenges of depicting autism on TV is deciding where on the spectrum the character will fall. Will they be nonverbal? Will they be as high-functioning as you can get, with symptoms so subtle they have to be pointed out? Or will they be brutally honest and have trouble reading social cues?
Those are just a few of the ways autism can be portrayed, and the last version is usually the one pop culture goes with, Atypical included. Sam (Keir Gilchrist), the teenager at the core of the Netflix dramedy, is literal and blunt and obsessive, all qualities the series mines for humor as he explores dating, attends therapy, and butts heads with his protective mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The danger with this approach is that it could come off as cartoonish and insensitive if handled the wrong way.
Atypical does not fall into this trap. Sam has autism, yes, and that informs much of his behavior, but, more than that, he’s a high school student with high school problems. The show mostly treats him with empathy, highlighting both these common struggles (unrequited love, awkward sexual encounters) and autism-specific challenges, like a crowded school dance. In fact, where it falters is in its normalcy: As the show goes on, it becomes more and more clear that Atypical isn’t atypical at all. It’s a series full of predictably heartwarming revelations and familiar setbacks, a fairly routine coming-of-age story for both its star and every other major character.
What elevates it despite that, though, is the charming, stellar cast, a group that can make even the most run-of-the-mill moments feel refreshing and powerful. Brigette Lundy-Paine stuns as Sam’s little sister, an outspoken track star who is struggling to figure out what she really wants after spending her whole life putting her brother first. Michael Rapaport is lovely as their father, who just wants to be a good dad but isn’t quite sure how to. As Sam’s therapist, Amy Okuda is gentle and sharp and funny, giving each scene she’s in a wonderful warmth. And then, of course, there’s Gilchrist and Jason Leigh, who are tasked with bringing the show’s two most complicated characters to life, and who do so with an impressive vulnerability.
The overwhelming strength of Atypical is how very human it is, of its affection for its messy, relatable characters. Everyone’s different; everyone makes mistakes. That doesn’t make anyone any better than the next person or any less deserving of happiness or love, and that is the point Atypical makes. It’s not quite groundbreaking, sure, but it’s important, and an idea that manages to feel comforting no matter how many times it’s repeated. Sometimes you want groundbreaking with a new show; sometimes you want chicken noodle soup. And when you do, Atypical is there.