Sam seems frozen. Any situation outside his family home can make him stand absolutely still, like one of his beloved penguins; Sam is obsessed with the minutiae of life in Antarctica.The only discernible emotion when he freezes will be in his restless eyes. He is looking for a way out.
Sam, the main character in the new television show Atypical, has autism. The British-Canadian actor Keir Gilchrist plays him with conviction and subtlety. As I tentatively started watching the first of eight episodes on Netflix, eventually giving in to the urge to binge-watch the show, I became more impressed by Gilchrist’s performance. Not since Dustin Hoffman in Rainman has an actor so powerfully captured the interior life and every-day affairs of someone living with autism. More than Max in the series Parenthood — and much more than the cool hitman with Asperger’s Syndrome in The Accountant — Sam lives a life to which we can relate, even if it is very different from our own.
He’s a sort-of regular 18-year-old going to school, trying to date, working in an electronics store, and falling for his exceedingly nice therapist (Amy Okuda). Makes sense — which teenage boy hasn’t dreamt of a beautiful teacher or other mentor?
The way Sam speaks his mind with abrupt honesty is often disarming, sometimes funny. The way his vision blurs, captured by shaky camera movements, makes sense when classmates bully him. The way he wraps himself in his preferred green hoodie and a blanket when he is hurt seems a natural approach to the state of shock that can follow the emotional storms in his mind.
Much of Atypical is not new. In essence it’s a nice little sitcom about a family with kind, middle-aged parents (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michael Rapaport). Sam’s sister Casey (a lovely young actress named Brigette Lundy-Paine) is a star high-school athlete dating a bad boy.
But the story at the heart of the show is new, in the way one of my favorite shows of all time, Friday Night Lights, used high-school football to separate itself from the pack. And standing out has gotten much harder now that streaming services and networks flood us with quality TV.
The concept of creator Robia Rashid is both original and brave. Putting autism in the middle of this family drama took guts. It’s wonderful that she did. As a creative person without the condition she proves that, yes, writers can and should try to imagine the lives of others, without fear of getting it wrong. By writing the show Rashid effectively rebukes the online and real-life mobs targeting writers who dare to “appropriate” the experiences of those who are different.
Not that it’s easy. Because Sam can’t always communicate easily, she and we, the viewers, get inside his head with a voice-over. Listening to him speak with wonder in his voice we get to know Sam more intimately than we would otherwise. “That makes it easier for the audience to understand him,” Rashid said in a Vulture interview. “I needed to really get that voice right. If the main character were a half-Pakistani, half-white girl, it wouldn’t have been as hard because that’s me. But with an autistic teenage boy, I had to do a lot of real learning and listening to people. It was a voice that I had to learn.”
Gilchrist’s Sam is the sun in this universe, but the cast around him is strong too. Jason-Leigh is both intense and out of it as the mother who has lost herself in raising an autistic boy, and she lashes out by having an affair. Rapaport as the father seems tired, hard-working, and kind. He’s tragically unable to connect to his son. The young actor Nik Dodani plays Sam’s best friend Zahid, a brilliant comic role.
Inside of this traditional world, a number of gems are hiding. Some scenes are surprisingly mysterious, even fairy-tale-like, like one in the final episode. Sam and his sister generally tease each other. That is, she teases her brother, who mostly offer bemused shrugs in return. But as they lay together on his bed, Sam wrapped in his favorite “safety hoodie,” there is simple sibling love. Both are feeling upset about their efforts to date. So they watch a nature show about ice caves on his computer. Suddenly, magically, real snow seems to be falling in the room. Sam wishes it would, his voiceover explains: “When it snows it’s like sound-proofing for the entire planet.” A strong image coming from a boy who can’t handle loud noise.
Atypical has been embraced and criticized online, specifically by writers and commenters who are on the spectrum. All I can say is that the show helps us understand what it might be like, not necessarily what it is like. Rashid tries to capture just one, singular experience of a family living with autism.
Thanks to Atypical, a kid named Sam becomes knowable. The difference between him and the viewer becomes negligible, even when he crudely breaks a girl’s heart or stupidly breaks into his therapist’s home to show his love for her. The show casually creates empathy while providing joy for viewers: let’s hope Netflix approves a new season soon.
Atypical was created by Robia Rashid. All eight episodes of Season 1 now stream on Netflix.