For high school senior Sam, dating is a deep mystery, like Stonehenge or crop circles.
The tacit social cues. The subtle body language. The veiled conversation. It’s all Greek to the autistic teen who’d rather talk about the migration habits of Antarctica’s chinstrap penguin population, but funnily enough, it’s not the best chick bait.
Yet if Sam (played with humour and sensitivity by Keir Gilchrist) ever hopes to have a girlfriend or experience his first kiss, he must decode this odd courtship ritual between humans. Complicating things is that he’s like any other “normal” teen on the precipice of adulthood — confused, irritated and dismayed.
Those who’ve raised, loved or cared for someone autistic will recognise their story in Netflix’s Atypical, a series that understands the minutiae and big picture of living on the spectrum, or living with someone that others may see as weird, odd or “not all there” (as one student says about Sam while she’s trying to defend him against bullies).
But this is not a sob story, or autism explainer, or after-school special about the importance of tolerance.
Atypical, which is available on Friday on the streaming service, is a fast-moving family drama that often borders on comedy. Created by Robia Rashid (How I Met Your Mother), the series is as compassionate as it is snarky, pairing a deep understanding about everyday life on the spectrum with a sense of humour rarely found in productions that deal with autism. Atypical risks offending some, but it does more good than harm by demystifying a sensitive and painful subject with an unapologetic candour.
Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michael Rapaport play Sam’s supportive parents, Elsa and Doug, and the impressive Brigette Lundy-Paine is his protective, tomboy sister, Casey. Together, they are a working-class family that has devoted the last 18 years to helping Sam cope.
Casey still carries his lunch money and keeps tabs on him at school. Elsa makes him separate meals and uses special detergent on his clothes (he wears the same thing every day) to placate his sensory issues and tactile sensitivities. His father is still perplexed on how to speak with his son, and stays at arm’s length until he’s finally needed to dispense something mom can’t — advice on how to get a girl.
This whole family of lifelong protectors is left wondering who they are, or what their role should be, now that Sam is seeking some autonomy. Casey explains it best during a college entrance interview when she must take an incoming call from her brother:
“Mom and Sam always used to say neurotypicals to describe everyone who wasn’t on the spectrum,” she says. “They called them NTs. But I thought they were saying ‘empties’ because Sam takes up so much space, everyone around him needs to be empty.”
It’s beautifully orchestrated moments like this that make more clumsy ones in Atypical stand out. Sam’s co-worker at the Techtropolis electronics store, Zahid (Nik Dodani), is full of cringeworthy stunts as the stereotypical South Asian nerd who ironically gets the hot ladies. And after Elsa cheats on her husband, she stares longingly at a cucumber in the market. Get it? For a show that’s so detailed and smart throughout, it can be awfully stupid in spots.
But Gilchrist’s performance makes up for it. Sam’s not an easy character to play — his black-and-white take on things could prove too narrow for viewers, and his literal take on sayings such as “Go get ‘em!” “Go where and get who?” could get annoying, but that doesn’t happen.
Sam’s robotic tone, idiosyncratic behaviour and social ticks are lovable, his unfiltered comments refreshingly honest.
Most charming, or at least entertaining, is his obsession with the South Pole. He can recite, with encyclopedic knowledge, stats on penguins and ice shelves. He sketches glaciers and penguins in his notebooks.
When other kids are wearing concert jerseys, he’s wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with various species of whales. When he makes a pros and cons list about a schoolmate he is thinking of asking to be his girlfriend, the pros column includes: Thick hair like arctic fox.
We all like to say we’re a little weird. Being different is a badge of honour in post-everything America. Be yourself, right?
But most of us have a choice of when to let our freak flag fly, and when to reel it in.
Sam doesn’t. He’s odd 24/7, and will be the rest of his life. Atypical doesn’t attempt to show how Sam is “just like us,” mostly because he’s not. And that’s what makes him a complex and unique television character worth watching.