Family sitcoms in myriad forms and variations have been parading through Americans’ living rooms for more than a half century now, not only reflecting but helping to shape our vision of what family means. In the face of the endless search for something fresh to say in the medium, the challenge of transcending the generic has resulted. Welcome to the new Netflix series Atypical, whose very title is a pithy and multilayered self-reference: a genre-atypical story of a family with two high school kids and assorted follies and pitfalls revolves around a character, Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), who is on the autism spectrum, someone who is not neurotypical (a standard of “normalcy”).
Having an autistic protagonist front and center (show-stealer Gilchrist does a remarkable job, summoning up a new brand of screen charisma) may seem a brazen tactic, and the series has garnered some criticism from those familiar with the condition for its stereotypes and slips of unrealistic characterization. From another point of view, though, the series has the refreshing audacity to address and bring to the public forum a not-at-all uncommon neurological condition while bringing us inside the head of someone in that world.
A true cliché: Many who work in tech, including Bill Gates, are on the autism spectrum, which can combine the difficulty of dealing with social cues with intense focus and pockets of intelligence. For Sam, his recurring obsession is with matters Antarctica-related (the series was originally named Antarctica) and penguins, which often become metaphors for his unfolding life in suburban Anytown, U.S.A.
Written and created by Robia Rashid, Atypical is a breezy eight-episode (so far) sitcom that skillfully invites binge watching and drops cliff-hangers before each end-credit sequence: Mom (the ever-compelling and dark side-embracing Jennifer Jason Leigh) giving in to midlife lust and “banging the bartender,” an unexpected pregnancy, daughter catching Mom kissing her secret lover. Yes, the show has sex on its mind, especially for the sexually curious and awakening Sam, who abides by the sage advice of his suavester Techtropolis coworker (Nik Dodani), who helps him scheme his trip “on the D train to bonetown.” Sam secretly has a thing for his therapist, Julia (Amy Okuda) — and surprisingly doesn’t blurt out the truth in one of his many truth-spew moments in the series — but, on his love guru’s advice, enlists Paige (Jenna Boyd) as a “practice girlfriend.”
Meanwhile, in other areas of the Gardner family saga, Dad (Michael Rapaport) is the solid anchor of the clan who has mended his formerly errant ways of denying and avoiding his autistic son and who remains oblivious to his cuckoldry (or does he? Stay tuned for season 2). Sam’s sister, Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), is a support system for her brother and the family’s tough-love linchpin. Sam’s patterns of reasoning and use of hyperlogic, which he is continually refining, combine with his startling bursts of honesty, such as when he announces to the crowd at the “silent dance,” (spoiler alert) “I just got a hand job in an igloo!”
Comic zingers aside, Atypical takes care to touch on the struggles of life “on the spectrum” for those affected and their families. The ostracism and bullying factor of life at school naturally comes up, as when a cruel group of boys mock Sam’s plans for love and sex in the school hallway. “People think I don’t know when I’m being picked on. But I do, which sometimes is worse.” A girl comes to his “rescue” during the painful scene, with the barbed defensive statement: “Leave him alone. He’s not all there.” Of course, as we learn during the show, he is more “all there” than many neurotypical peers.