Typical

‘As We See It’ represents people on the spectrum, but it’s not very funny, and kind of insulting

As We See It has been a big sleeper hit for Amazon Prime. Although Amazon produced and released the relatively realistic situation comedy about three autistic adults with little fanfare, the show gained a surprisingly robust following on the streaming platform thanks to positive discussion of it across social media. Being on the spectrum myself, I was curious to see whether this was the promised arrival of well-defined realistic spectrum characters and I…hated it ever so much.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

To be fair As We See It isn’t exactly incorrect in the way it depicts its three leads. All three of the actors are actually on the spectrum themselves. If your main desire for a situation comedy about autistic people is woke casting giving a representational voice to actual autistic people, then As We See It is everything you could possibly want.

But as far as the comedy goes, As We See It isn’t funny. Like at all. On a scene by scene basis hardly anything that happens in any given episode qualifies as a joke, intentional or otherwise. Jack is a computer programmer who thinks he’s smarter than other people, and rude. Yet his rudeness is never funny. It just creates drama. Violet works at Arby’s, and is obsessed with getting a boyfriend. The show plays this off not as as funny, but as a desire that she, and everyone else, needs to constrain. Harrison has no job at all. It’s a struggle for him just to get outside. Again, nothing really approaching even an attempt at a joke.

This much is less a knock against As We See It specifically as it is against the entire concept of prestige half hour television comedy in general. This is distinct from comedy that at least attempts to be funny, like The Big Bang Theory. Yes, the laugh track might be doing a lot of the work there, but at least Sheldon makes his assholish comments with clear cues, logical conclusions, and amusing observations. Sheldon is the high point of the show, since is clearly designs Sheldon-adjacent jokes to work with Jim Parsons’s delivery, and tension arises from how the other characters struggle to predict Sheldon’s actions. The rest of a typical episode is, by contrast, just low-stakes personal drama and low-hanging nerd references.

Contrast that with the situations of As We See It’s situation comedy, which deflate any potential humor is  by the fact that the show’s neurotypical characters constantly act as condescending authority figures. That much, again, isn’t really wrong in regards to life on the spectrum. Plenty of people there, myself included, really hate identifying as such because we don’t like the world pigeonholing us as having all our actions being the deterministic result of our condition. Among other things, it lets other people off the hook for being assholes to us.

Which is exactly what As We See It does. It consistently portrays Jack as a menace at work because he tells other people they’re of substandard intelligence, as if he can’t understand that people don’t like it when he insults them. Yet the show introduces one random co-worker, supposedly one of the few who likes Jack, with a profanity-laden tirade about how Jack is a terrible colleague.

For a moment I thought this guy was also going to be on the spectrum, because that’s actually a very spectrumesque temper tantrum. Situations where Jack is rude are, by contrast, extremely contrived. Jack is a computer programmer who insults the boss at a meeting- why Jack was even at the meeting was unclear. Programmers don’t generally need to attend them. That’s not a spectrum thing, people just consider it a waste of their time in general because the work they need to do is almost entirely technical. Other people attend meetings for them to relay whatever it is they need to do.

Then there’s Violet, who causes considerably more headaches from a feminist viewpoint than reliefs from a spectrum one. This is because the show has built her characterization entirely around her single-minded determination to get a boyfriend. Despite talking about this nearly every single time she’s on-screen, neither Violet’s careworker Mandy nor her brother Van make any effort to manage her expectations. They just discourage her–but only from dating neurotypical people. Someone should be trying to have a serious conversation with Violet to explain that not everyone who wants to have sex with you wants to have an actual relationship. Van’s girlfriend Selena almost does explain that, only to delegate the task to Van who unsurprisingly manages to screw it up by just treating Violet like a child instead of having a serious adult conversation with her.

Van and Mandy both read like the actual main characters of As We See It, because it largely presents their problems as beyond their control. Meanwhile, they constantly tell their autistic wards that they need to do what they’re told in order to be happy. This is, in fact, pretty much exactly what happens when the autistic characters decide to follow instructions. Harrison’s too noise-sensitive to so much as walk by a dog in the first episode, yet manages to ride a bus to the other side of the town with minimal prodding in a later one.

Then, in one of the show’s bigger moments of normalizing the idea that neurotypical people are inherently assholes, a random stranger all but accuses Harrison of being a child molester. The worst of that scene is everyone acting like this has anything to do with Harrison being autistic. No one knows that Harrison is autistic because he’s hardly said a word the whole time he’s been there. What they know is that he’s tall, fat, and not especially attractive.

As We See It, much like Kim’s Convenience before it, buys into about as many prejudices as it challenges. The strong performances of the three core actors can’t overcome an incredibly presumptuous script that starts from the idea that people on the spectrum are too feeble-minded to understand such bewildering concepts as social courtesy. Autistic people are, apparently, generally incapable of understanding any explanations at all and it’s an exercise in frustration to even try.

The only scene that even comes close to addressing the unfortunate messaging of this is a late one where Jack repeatedly emphasizes to his love interest that certain quirks of his have nothing to do with his being on the spectrum. The explanations become gratuitous, the increasing cringe-inducing awkwardness an obvious consequence of Jack having internalized the message that he is hopelessly different from other people and they will never understand or accept him unless he accepts the fact that from their perspective he’s basically a freak. All of As We See It works on the same energy- so obsessed with neurotypicalsplaining there’s absolutely nothing to recommend the show beyond its core gimmick.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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