In Season 3, Our Autistic Protagonist Heads Off to College
The autism community seems fairly fond of tossing around the phrase that, “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Those with the disability share a common vein of symptoms, but the myriad manifestations bear very little in common. But while autism may be reflective of the diversity found within the human gene pool, the most radical facet of the Netflix show Atypical is how much it resembles traditional network TV.
Since creator Robia Rashid and producer Seth Gordon previously worked on The Goldbergs, I would bet cash money that they originally pitched Atypical at ABC as a hip addition to their roster of “Families are so different but also the same, right?” shows like Modern Family, Blackish, and Fresh Off the Boat. Because Atypical ended up on Netflix, there’s plenty of standard wise young narrator action, but as a bonus, we get some swears and mild raunch thrown into the mix. It’s not a bad show, but it’s competing with other programming on the same platform that’s quirky and distinct and entirely unsuitable for prime time viewing (Looking at you, Big Mouth).
My son with autism heard about Atypical, and predetermined it’s ableist propaganda, because, as he says, “a diagnosis doesn’t equal a character.” When the show first came out, I approached it with inherently less prejudgment, but ended up agreeing with him and abandoned it about halfway through the season. The producers actually addressed viewer complaints by hiring an autism consultant and mindfully casting actors with a diagnosis. While these gestures earn an A for effort, good intentions don’t generally generate hilarity. If Atypical aired on a traditional network that forced it clock in at 23 minutes, it would probably be a sharper show. Though it’s one of the easier streams amongst Netflix’s sometimes too-intense roster, thirty minutes gives it too much time to meander.
Usually, season three is the glorious sweet spot for a show. The show has set the rules of its world, built the structures, and now, the writers can let their characters frolic. Since Atypical made it this far, it felt like time to give it a second chance. This season sends Sam Gardner off to college, still a virgin, but with minimal emotional glitching standing in his way.
For the most part, the people in this world accept Sam’s eccentricities to a nearly saintly degree. Everything he wants seems to fall into place like magic. While lucky Sam adjusts to life as an adult and tackles every challenge with aplomb, his sister Casey explores her muddled feelings for her boyfriend Evan and her private school track team bestie Izzie. As the teens learn and grow, their parents fumble around in their shattered marriage. This season also sees further development in Sam’s relationship with his on again/off again girlfriend Paige, who heads off to college in Maine. Meanwhile, Sam’s world becomes complicated in a new way when his coworker and true friend Zahid finds love.
As Zahid, Nik Dodani maximizes every second of screen time like a man trying to earn his way into a Judd Apatow movie. The show’s heart beats strongest when it explores the bond between Sam and Zahid, and it would do well to spend more time with these two. Unfortunately, Atypical insistently wastes screen time on Amy Okuda’s character Julia, the hot mess of a therapist who stopped working with Sam after he confessed his love to/for her during season one. She pops up repeatedly as one of the weirdest expository devices on TV. Sara Gilbert and Eric McCormack appear this season as Sam’s professors, and earn exactly enough screen time to make one wonder why they bothered. Far too many side characters get utterly lost in the mix. It feels like someone thought more characters would equal more laughs, but that math was wrong.
Atypical excels in its handling of the complicated relationship siblings assemble when one is disabled and the other is a normie. Keir Gilchrist and Brigette Lundy-Paine have grown beautifully into their roles as Sam and Casey Gardner. Their performances are nuanced, their bond feels natural, and they’re able to lean in to everything the writers ask of them. In particular, Lundy-Paine is a real treat, and is, hands down, the show’s MVP. Not only does she shine as an excellent little sister pushed into a big-sister spot, she also realistically showcases her subtle teen angst and sexual confusion.
At the other end of the spectrum (so to speak), as the Gardner parents, Atypical rather mishandles Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michael Rappaport. It doesn’t seem like the writers can decide what kind of person either parent is, or how a viewer should feel about any of their choices. As Doug, Rappaport remains game in his usual aloof doof Dick Richie role, while Jennifer Jason Leigh’s casting as Elsa feels off because the show rounds her natural sharp edges to cast her sorely against type. She seems lost, not just as the character, but within it. On top of that, every time these two end up onscreen together, I start wondering what universe this show could possibly take place in, because in this surreal world, Jennifer Jason Leigh willingly boned Michael Rappaport at least two times.
Netflix often cancels shows after the third season, so Sam’s story might end here. Should Atypical continue, I might tune in, not because it reflects my life as the matriarch of a family that pivots around autism, but to see what happens to the women in Sam’s life. We know Sam has a limit to his personal growth, but maybe the women can grow into fully realized characters. Or perhaps the show is more ingenious than I think, and it’s deliberately pointing out that none of us can be fully developed human creature. Because it’s not just Sam, but all of us, who are actually Atypical.