Autism Spectrum Australia

Atypical – First Impressions by Ben Calandruccio

  • Posted: 11/10/2017
  • Author: Ben Calandruccio
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Ben Calandruccio is a movie fan, writer and a young man on the autism spectrum.
He's back with his first impressions of the new Netflix TV series "Atypical"


Before we begin, this is first and foremost a review on the first episode of Atypical only. I will mainly be focusing on the episode ‘Antarctica’, meaning that I will not talk about any other episodes or potential spoilers regarding the show itself.

Atypical is a coming-of-age/dark comedy series from the mind of Robia Rashid, centres on Sam Gardner, an 18-year-old teenager with autism. With him is his family in father figure Doug, mother bear Elsa, and snarky sister Casey, along with his therapist Julia, who has been conducting some meetings with our lead character.

Watching Atypical for the first time, it started off promising, focusing on Sam playing with a rubber band as he is talking, having an adoration on wanting to go to Antarctica, and even picking up on a few little details, one of which being Julia’s bra strap being visible. We also learn that Sam hates the feeling of the bus seats so much that he chooses to sit up. It is there where he laughs at his own thoughts about Antarctic cod, notably unnerving several passengers.

Sam is played by Keir Gilchrist, who is seven years older than the character he is playing. Fortunately, it is not too much of a problem, as not only does he look like a teenage Sheldon Cooper, he does handle the autistic character nicely, despite not being autistic. Although he seemed to have compensated for this after researching for the role, including watching movies and reading books on autism.

If there is one thing that I can say about the show, it’s that it has at least done the homework on how a person affected with autism reacts/could react (with creator/writer Robia Rashid going as far as to consulting with Michelle Dean, who worked at UCLA’s Centre for Autism Research and Treatment); to Keir’s credit, he does give the character a fair go, and while it isn’t the best performance I’ve seen, it’s somewhat accurate.

In the first episode, after Julia (Amy Okuda) gives him the idea of donating his brain following his death – citing a shortage of brain matter – Sam shares the idea over with his family. Here, we get some character traits that ends up defining the Gardner family; his mother, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who, despite being the provider housewife, flatly refuses the idea outright on the childish account that “it’s gross”; his father, Doug (Michael Rapaport), an ambulance driver who is initially supportive of the idea; and his sister, Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), who is snarky, yet very defending of her brother. She does remind me of my younger brothers, who can be playful, yet do care about me.

During the same dinner, Sam is also planning to get onto the dating scene, which serves as one of the key plots of the show in general. He picks up every ounce of information he can to help him out, with Casey even urging him not to go on and on about penguins let alone Antarctica, under the assumption that the girl he is dating doesn’t like them. Zahid (Nik Dodani), who is Sam’s workmate friend, is an undisputed horny man who actually helps encourage Sam to take the first step in getting a date. ‘Perverted’ and ‘sex-crazed’ as he may be, he can be somewhat insightful with his own moments.

With mother Elsa voicing her disapproval of Sam wanting to go out dating, she confronts Julia following her lecture at a local college. Elsa then tells the therapist that Sam is supposedly doing fine on his own, throwing the ‘not ready’ card up as a means of not wanting to apply pressure on her son. And while it seemed like the two of them handle it reasonably well, Elsa (after the door is shut) gives her the birds.

This act pretty much sums up the problem I have with Elsa as a character. Yes, while she does love Sam as a son, it seems like Sam is pretty much the best thing that she has in her life. This may be why she doesn’t want him to go out in the unknown, though in doing so she’s also not willing to let Sam learn the hard parts of a relationship. This is unlike father figure Doug, who recognises this as an opportunity to build a stronger relationship with his son.

Speaking of which, Doug has had a hard time trying to connect with Sam, though he has tried as much as he could. The key examples of these are explained while having a restaurant dinner with Elsa. This is where, despite Sam’s imperfections, Doug tells Elsa these two lines: “I thought he’d be more like me or like you… he’s not like either one of us or anyone else I’ve ever met” and “You’re not the only one in the family who has an autistic kid.” What cements Doug’s quest to be there for his son is that he recalls building an igloo out of ice blocks for Sam on his ninth birthday, even though the latter didn’t get inside due to the igloo not being ‘lined up properly’. It at least shows that Doug can prove to be a caring parent if given the chance.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michael Rapaport turn in an overall good performance as the respective mother and father trying to understand Sam’s future plan. While at times they can come off as forced with some of their lines, their care for Sam seems almost as genuine as Casey’s. Back when Sam announced that he wanted to dip his toes into a relationship during dinner, Doug sees this as an opportunity for not only Sam to grow, but also their relationship as father and son. Elsa, meanwhile, sees this as a void in her life, so to fill her heart, she ends up meeting a bartender named Nick (Raul Castillo) following one dance class. Anyone who has seen a soap opera such as Bold and the Beautiful would know where this is going.

Casey ends up getting a more prominent role starting this episode; after discovering that Beth (Rachel Redleaf) had been graffito-bullied by Bailey over her weight, she defends Beth by punching said bully out thus standing up for the mistreated, yet also earning herself a suspension. Unfortunately, Elsa calls her daughter out on this, as she only sees Bailey as a quote-unquote ‘nice girl’ and the punch as a complete confusion, claiming Casey doesn’t even like Beth. Ironic, considering that Elsa was one of those bullies in her days despite claiming to have a pudgy friend of her own.

After Casey finishes a jog around the block, Beth and her brother Evan arrive to congratulate their hero by baking a cake – the Super Mario 64 method of victory. Throughout the episode, Evan (Graham Rogers) makes a few sporadic appearances, which eventually leads to another plot point this time with Casey to begin a slow transition to a relationship. Though Casey is initially puzzled, it is at least one of, if not the most heart-warming moment in this episode.

Speaking of plots, here’s the main problem with Atypical: Although it features an autistic main character dipping his toe in relationship waters, Sam seems to feel a bit lost in the fellow subplots built up during the first episode – totalling three, making the show technically feel more like an unqualified dramedy than a show focusing on autism. It also doesn’t help that star Keir Gilchrist is given second billing under Jennifer Jason Leigh (though she was the producer of the show). And for a show called ‘Atypical’, you’d think there would be at least more than one character with disabilities. None of the other main cast members are on the spectrum.

Sam actually does manage to go out on a date in this episode, twice. However, both of them bomb due to Sam himself and his actions. The first date, Sam (while wearing headphones!) tries everything he wrote down in his notes and goes as far as to ask the girl if she could get rid of her cat, which is a literal pet peeve for him. The second date goes more smoothly, at least at first. What makes this ironically uncomfortable is that following the date, she goes as far as to ask if there’s something wrong with his brain. He does have autism, but I don’t think that qualifies as ‘something wrong’ with the mind.

Sam is consoled by his sister Casey and Evan; the former giving her brother a cup of tea to help make him feel better, while the latter tells Sam that the first time isn’t the finest hour. Evan also tells Sam one important line: “Nobody’s normal”. After eventually recovering from the setback following the trip to the aquarium the day after with Doug, Sam decides to accept the idea of having his brain removed in the event of death which, unbeknownst to Julia, is part of a ploy to get her as his girlfriend.

Now that I’ve finished talking about the first episode of Atypical, I can tell you that I’ve watched the whole series. But the main question for this show is ‘Should Atypical be worth watching’? It’s hard to say. While the premise is common bread and butter for a sitcom (granted if you threw out the autism), the show does throw you vital twists to keep you invested and the main cast do their best to try and stay as one happy family with their son 30 minutes at a time.

That said, I still feel somewhat unnerved that Sam’s arc is a little lost on the sub-plots. It was also hard for me to root for the show; after eight episodes, I felt disappointed with the payoff, let alone the final result of the show, despite the fact things seemed to be on the up. While I won’t give any other spoilers away regarding the show itself, I will say this about Atypical: expect the unexpected.

Fortunately, each main character does have some likability. Sam, despite the autism, can be a brutally honest yet kind-hearted teenager who has the potential to learn from his mistakes. Casey, despite being snarky and volatile, does genuinely care about her brother. Doug, although he had tried his darnedest to get along with Sam, finally is starting to get on the same page with his son. Even Elsa has some likable features despite being the literal mother bear, as she has been there for Sam through thick and thin. And if the show can at least nail down autism well, it is at least, not only a step in the right direction, but also worth a watch.


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Atypical – First Impressions by Ben Calandruccio