Atypical is Atypical
Atypical, a new Netflix original series, is a TV drama that beats with equal parts melancholy and heart. The show follows the lives of the Gardner family, whose eldest child Sam (Keir Gilchrist) is struggling to acclimate with the world around him, trying to adjust to life with Autism Spectrum Disorder. His parents Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Doug (Michael Rappaport) worry about their son as he decides to enter the world of dating, even as their own relationship appears to be coming apart at the seams. Casey (Brigette Lundy Paine) is Sam’s protective younger sister, defensive of her brother when anyone picks on him, but masking her own personal sadness, exacerbated by a rift with her mother. Sam also makes regular visits to his therapist Julia (Amy Okuda) on whom he has developed a crush.
The series itself, and thanks to a winning performance by Gilchrist, ventures successfully into the world of Autism Spectrum Disorder. The idiosyncrasies, the concerns, mannerisms that can be expected from a person with this disorder are respectfully and honestly conveyed, but what it more important is that, beyond this, the portrait of human being is being painted. Sam hurts. Sam wonders. Sam needs to master his own fate. Sam desperately wants to overcome, and the character is carefully drawn to make sure that he is never mired in stereotypes. It is often the case for actors conveying and writers depicting people with Autism Spectrum Disorder to carve out a crude, robotic humanoid without a pulse. Refreshingly, Gilchrist radiates emotion and finds subtle nuances in the writing, offering us a character that is so much more than a generalization.
Gilchrist is not the only one giving an exemplary performance. Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sam’s hardened mother Elsa, teeming with frustration, clearly worries about her son, protects him with every fiber of her being, but she does this at a cost of her relationship with her husband and her daughter. Leigh makes her icy, but manages to register a peculiar warmth that bubbles underneath the surface. Michael Rappaport as Sam’s father Doug is lost, estranged from his wife, but unwilling to let his marriage fall apart. His relationship with Sam is strained, but loving just the same. Rappaport gives Doug an awkward lovability, a man wandering through his own home, looking for the family that he somehow misplaces. Paine’s portrayal of Casey is perhaps the most complex interpretation in Atypical: fiercely loyal, instinctively courageous, but bubbling underneath with a touch of resentment for how Sam can usurp attention and energy in her family. She’s the forgotten one.
Atypical is not all Sturm und Drang. Each character has a lighthearted side that occasionally shines through the darkness, a light in the dark, so to speak. The shows finds humor in the daily frustrations of the typical person and filters it through the eyes, voice and mind of someone who handles it with a unique perspective brought on by the Autism Spectrum Disorder. We are never asked to laugh at Sam, but we sure are capable of laughing with him because we see a bit of ourselves in his frustrations and observations. This is what makes Atypical, atypical.