While watching Netflix’s first season of Atypical, I couldn’t help but make comparisons to current network sitcoms. Atypical is about the highs and lows of a family that includes an uptight mother; an amicable, traditional father; a smart-mouthed, ambitious daughter; an autistic son embarking on the noble mission of finding a girlfriend; and his therapist who, though not technically member, is a huge part of this family’s life and encourages Sam (Keir Gilchrist) to pursue love. This show comes at a perfect time when family sitcoms are at the peak of diversity and the most popular sitcom about an autistic man finding love is coming to an end. And it easily beats these shows both in humor and heart.
The other show about an autistic man finding love is, of course, The Big Bang Theory, which features the genius Sheldon Cooper, who is often interpreted as autistic. Sheldon’s antics are arguably the main reason for the show’s immense success, but they’re also the reason for the bulk of the show’s criticisms. Many regard Sheldon as a stereotypical autistic savant, a genius in one field but incompetent and socially inept in pretty much everything else. The bulk of the laughs, some argue, are at Sheldon’s expense; his autism is comic rather than realistic.
For me, Sheldon’s depiction has never been offensive, and I think there’s something to be said for a long-running show centering on an autistic character who becomes as lovable as he is ridiculous, develops over the show’s run, and has a sexual/romantic relationship as well as supportive friends—attributes we don’t often see from autistic characters. Though I don’t catch the show every week anymore, I recognize that even with the flaws of Sheldon’s portrayal, the triumphs deserve at least some respect.
Atypical is special in that it hits the positives of Sheldon’s portrayal while avoiding its shortcomings. Though the character in Atypical is clearly very smart, he’s just that whiz kid who gets As in everything in high school, not some genius who graduated college at 19 or something. Besides avoiding that autistic savant stereotype, the show does not sentimentalize or ridicule his autism. We see how unfriendly the world is to autism when he initially turns down an invitation to the school dance because of all the lights and noise and people and when people bully him at school, but we also see him working at a Best Buy-type place and enjoying time with his family and his friend Zahid (played by Nik Dodani who, to continue The Big Bang Theory comparison, is basically the Howard of the show as he attempts to be Sam’s love guru). We laugh at some of his moments of awkwardness that are clearly aspects of his autism, but we also laugh at those moments of awkwardness that are clearly aspects of him just being a teenage boy, including his attempts to woo his therapist (I guess for most teenage boys it would be a teacher instead) and his anxiety over losing his virginity. Basically, he’s just as typical as he is atypical, making his portrayal entertaining, heartwarming and refreshing.
But this show is as much about his family as about him. ABC has made noticeable strides in its representation of diverse families with multiple series featuring marginalized characters including a black family (Blackish), an Asian family (Fresh Off the Boat), a son with cerebral palsy (Speechless) and homosexual parents (Modern Family), among other examples. Like The Big Bang Theory, I don’t catch these shows every week, but I commend their diversity and find them enjoyable for the most part. However, they tend to have issues with balance. Sometimes there’s too much narration or just too many family members. Some shows have entertaining storylines and jokes for the main character, but a sister or uncle might have minimal characterization and is just kinda . . . there. These shows aren’t as funny or interesting when they spend time boring you with an unnecessary character.
In contrast, all of Atypical’s primary characters shine, developing throughout the series—except for Zahid who remains a horny nerd throughout. Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the somewhat over-done character of stressed-out mom, but it’s interesting to see how she tests the audience’s loyalty as we both sympathize with her and hate her as she has an affair with a bartender. Doug (Michael Rapaport) is a kind, traditional father, but the show uncovers his darker side over the course of the season. Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) has a fun yet protective relationship with her brother, Sam, but the spunky high schooler struggles between her loyalty to her new boyfriend, her brother and her track team and her ambition to leave her small town to achieve success as a runner. As annoying as Paige (Jenna Boyd) is as Sam’s love interest, it’s hard not to admire her confidence and dedication to Sam. And don’t be fooled by Julia’s (Sam’s therapist, played by Amy Okuda) poise; she’s perhaps the biggest mess of the entire cast.
I was surprised to find that I am one of the kinder viewers of this show. Critically, it has fair reviews, but it has received backlash from the autism community. I suppose I can understand this, considering that many of Sam’s habits and his social awkwardness are standard fair in stereotypical representations of autism. (Also, are there any shows/books/movies about non-white, non-male, non-straight individuals with autism? I honestly can’t think of anything other than that dumb Power Rangers movie.) As someone with no personal experience with autism, I can’t speak too much about the realism of Sam’s autism and will link to articles that go into criticisms from the autism community. Having said that, I still recognize this show as a step forward in representations of autism and as a funny, family-friendly sitcom. With its quirky, messy but still realistic characters, it forces the audience to question what “typical” even means. Netflix has renewed the show for a second season, so I look forward to seeing how these characters continue to develop.
Cake rating: Sam is all about arctic wildlife, so I’ll enjoy this show with a piece of ice cream cake.