Sunday, June 16, 2024

Atypical is Problematic but Hilariously Relatable

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Spoiler warning for season 1 of Atypical.

Netflix’s Atypical seems to be one of those polarizing shows that people either love or love to hate. Its representation of autism is original in some ways, but not everybody considers this rep to be positive. The story revolves around Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), an autistic teenager trying to enter the dating scene. His mother Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) believes he is not ready for the social pressures of dating and gives Sam’s therapist, Julia (Amy Okuda), a piece of her mind for encouraging him to branch out. Sam’s father Doug (Michael Rapaport), however, relishes the new opportunity to bond with his son over dating advice. Meanwhile, younger sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) has to weigh her own aspirations against the needs of the family, which often revolve around Sam.

Sounds pretty benign, right? Things get messy when Sam, after a few failed attempts with girls, fixates on Julia and decides to pursue her romantically. Doug discourages this and says Sam should get involved with a girl his own age. Acting on this advice, Sam begins dating a classmate named Paige (Jenna Boyd), though he remains unsure of his feelings for her all season. In a rather chaotic and cheesy side plot, when Elsa starts to feel unneeded at home she embarks on an affair with free-spirited bartender Nick (Raúl Castillo). Casey and Julia, meanwhile, have hard choices and relationship drama of their own to deal with. All these threads come together in a finale that is at once painful, frustrating, and endearing.

If reviews would have you believe it, I am a rare autistic person who enjoyed Atypical. The internet is flooded with bad write ups about this show, most of which focus on the supposedly negative portrayal of autism. But I quite honestly loved it. Perhaps my predilection toward family dramedies is to blame, but I didn’t find the show boring or offensive. Quite the opposite, in fact. That’s not to say, however, that I’m blind to Atypical’s problematic aspects or why it rubs some people the wrong way.

So, why do I love this show? And why do some people hate it? What are these problematic aspects I speak of? Let’s break it down…

What’s good?

First of all, Atypical is hilarious. Everyone has a different sense of humor, so I don’t expect everybody to agree with me. But I am suprised when reviewers say they don’t find it funny at all, because its humor has a broad range and appeal. It reminds me of Pitch Perfect in the sense that it incorporates several styles of humor: witty dialogue, awkward moments, and physical comedy.

Autistic reviewers have raised concerns that much of the humor appears to be at Sam’s expense and encourages the audience to laugh at the autistic character. But honestly, it feels to me like Sam is the butt of fewer jokes than Julia, Paige, or Elsa. Most of those jokes are about them being manic or uptight, which is a tad sexist, but I’ll let it go. Julia’s angry rants to boyfriend Miles over the phone and the moment she trips in the middle of one such rant are hilarious. The scene where Paige invades Sam’s room and begins touching all his things had me in stitches.

(As an aside, I totally understand why Sam banishes Paige to the closet to give himself a timeout. It isn’t so easy for him to run away and hide in that situation. What I really liked is how Paige takes it in stride and understands why, admitting she can be a handful even for people not on the spectrum.)

Another reason I love Atypical is that I feel it is a mostly positive portrayal of autism. I have yet to watch Mr. Robot, but Sam Gardner is definitely an improvement on autistic representation in comedies. Most notably, Sheldon Cooper. What I can’t stand about Sheldon is that he seems to enjoy making people uncomfortable, using his autism as an excuse to be a dick. While Sam can be a dick at times, he is Sheldon’s antithesis in many ways. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and when he realizes that he has, he feels horrible. That is far more relatable to me. The sociopathic autistic vigilante is a troubling trope, most notably apparent in Lisbeth Salander and Christian Wolff. That Atypical went out of its way to portray an autistic character who is well-meaning and sensitive (despite appearing insensitive at times) means a lot to me.

Sam: “People think autistic people don’t have empathy, but that’s not true. Sometimes I can’t tell if someone’s upset, but once I know I feel lots of empathy. Maybe even more than neurotypicals.”

Not only is the character better, so is the explanation of his behavior. In Big Bang Theory, Sheldon is mocked for his many neuroses, but we never see what they stem from. In Atypical, we get to see things from Sam’s point of view, courtesy of his narration and the shots illustrating sensory overload. The show uses jump cuts and tight shots with shallow depth of focus and high contrast to make the experience just as jarring and uncomfortable for the viewer as it is for Sam. Not only is it remarkably effective in that right, it’s an accurate illustration of how it feels to be teetering on the edge of a meltdown.

The scenes where Sam is getting teased in the hallway and where he violently rips off his new jacket both use this effect well. The scene that really outdoes itself, though, is Sam’s meltdown in the finale. The part on the bus where he completely breaks down made me cry, but even before that I was feeling his pain. His twitchy behavior when Julia reacts negatively to his overture hinted at the impending meltdown, and the claustrophobia-inducing shot of Julia repeatedly saying no was a gut punch.

Aside from the poignant way it was shot, I liked how that scene was presented in a way that allowed the audience to have empathy for either character, or even both. I personally can understand both points of view. Julia feels violated (for good reason) and a guy is coming on to her inappropriately. Any woman can relate to that. And though it’s not his fault, she blew up her life because Sam broke into her house, so I can understand her frustration. On the other hand, Sam doesn’t have the greatest grasp on what is appropriate, and being chastised that aggressively when you have good intentions can be devastating for an autistic.

Amy Okuda as Julia Sasaki in Netflix's Atypical

As uncomfortable as this scene was, I appreciate that it showed how a bit more sensitivity is needed with autistic individuals. Callout culture has made it acceptable, even trendy, to call people out for inappropriate behavior in a manner that is intended to hurt or embarrass them. While that wasn’t Julia’s intent, the scene still illustrated the kind of panic that can occur when autistics are confronted. People need to be mindful of how they confront us because we a) may not understand that certain behaviors are inappropriate in the first place, b) are much more easily overwhelmed, and c) have already gotten so much feedback in our lives telling us we are rude or mean when we don’t intend to be, so it can be a… for lack of a better word, trigger.

Let’s change gears now to the broader story beyond Sam’s POV. Atypical strikes a decent balance between showing the difficulties of life on the spectrum and the intricacies of being related to an autistic. Sam’s relationship with Casey is especially nuanced and fleshed out. While Casey has to act as a bit of a caretaker for Sam, they also bicker like any other siblings. As Sam says, “My sister doesn’t let anyone beat me up, except herself.”

I also enjoyed Casey’s characterization and storyline individually. Casey is essentially what you get when you take Jules Paxton (and her relationship with her mother) and inject her with a healthy dose of Juno MacGuff. And yes, she vibes every bit as gay as both of those characters and is also just as bafflingly straight. That being said, her boyfriend Evan is one of my faves and they’re pretty adorable.

Anyway, point is I relate to her a lot, as a youngest child with athletic ambitions who was at times overlooked thanks to an older sibling who sucked up a lot of energy (love you, sis!). While Casey acknowledges the difficulties of life with Sam, she doesn’t get caught up in feeling sorry for herself. Possibly this is because she is younger and doesn’t remember a time before Sam’s needs dominated the family.

As for Sam’s parents, they do talk about getting back to the way things were before. The show manages to allow the audience some sympathy for them without excusing all of their behaviors. Doug’s case is more straightforward, as he abandoned the family post-diagnosis and is rightfully ashamed of it in retrospect. Now he is making an effort to connect with his son and fumbling a little despite good intentions.

Elsa, meanwhile, seems to have resigned herself to being an autism supermom even when it isn’t all that necessary. Though she’s a far cry from an Autism Warrior Mommy, she does make Sam’s autism about herself a bit too much. On the bright side, she is very understanding of what accommodations he needs and doesn’t try to cure him or make him handle life like an allistic (someone who is not autistic). But she is also overprotective and her doubts about what Sam can handle threaten to hold him back.

One scene I particularly liked was when Doug tries to return to the parental support group after a long absence. His attempts to articulate how things are going for his son fail miserably because the facilitator is super condescending, more concerned with Doug using the precise language they prefer than with what he is trying to say. This is a problem with society in general these days, dismissing anyone who doesn’t know the proper lingo. And while it was super uncomfortable to watch Doug mimicking Sam’s behavior to communicate what he meant, that only happens because his attempts to explain himself in speech were shut down.

The facilitator’s insistence on using person-first language is ironic, because a lot of autistic people don’t like person-first language, nor the labels of high vs. low functioning they used in the group. I wonder if the creators knew this and were also trying to make a point about how autism advocates often don’t listen to autistics. Unfortunately, given their influences, I doubt it. More on that below.

Keir Gilchrist as Sam Gardner in Netflix's Atypical, compared with an autistic girl
This is what happens when people force me to smile with teeth.

More than anything, what I love about Atypical is how relatable it is. I see a lot of myself in Sam. His excessive literalism and need to do research before getting into anything. The way he asks tons of questions to clear up little things he’s thought of that most people wouldn’t. Being very annoyed by the one piece of hair that won’t settle into place. Sam struggling to figure out how to smile in a way that seems genuine and not creepy is perhaps the most relatable thing in the show. Running off and hiding in a small space from people making social demands of him is a close second.

Sam: “I like rules. They make things clear. Before I do something, I like to know all the rules.”

Paige touching and picking up all the stuff in Sam’s room made me laugh but also cringe. I had a girlfriend once who noticed how the stuff on my dresser was always arranged the same way. She moved it around in front of me to tease me, and I almost burst into tears. For the fact that I was being teased, partly, and because my things were now in the wrong spots. But mostly it was because I just can’t stand when people take or move or even touch my things without asking. Also painfully relatable was watching Sam panic on his first date and start to rip through all his strategies for talking to girls in a particularly crash and burn fashion. Sensing you’ve said something wrong and making attempts to fix it that make it even worse is like Asperger’s 101.

Though this may sound counterintuitive, it is freeing for me to not only see a depiction of autism I can relate to, but to be able to laugh at my own ineptitudes. This is a comedy, and I want to be entertained. I found I was laughing at these awkward situations more than at Sam himself, anyway. That being said, I can understand the concern from other reviewers that this could lead to neurotypicals feeling it’s okay to laugh at the weird kid. Other people laughing at us is not the same as us laughing at ourselves. Though I wasn’t offended by the (in my opinion rare) jokes that are strictly at Sam’s expense, I would feel more comfortable with them were more people involved in Atypical‘s production actually autistic. Which leads me to the not-so-good aspects of the show.

My fave is problematic

Almost all of Atypical’s issues stem from a lack of representation in front of and behind the camera. While the actor who played Christopher is autistic, Keir Gilchrist is not. I can’t really begrudge his casting because a) they did audition autistic actors for the role as well and b) he did an excellent job, nailing the rigid posture and flat affect many of us have. But it’s a bad look on a series without an autistic consultant or sensitivity reader. Their consultants were people who merely had “experience with autism” rather being autistic themselves. That said, they also did a ton of research, reading materials from people on the spectrum to get the POV right. But having some actual autistic consultants on the show would have been better. Aside from hopefully getting more details right, that would have come across less as allistics making fun of us.

Sam: “People think I don’t know when I’m being picked on, but I do. I just don’t always know why, which in some ways is worse.”

It’s also annoying that this supposedly groundbreaking show chose to use a very conventional autistic character as its focus. That is, a straight white male who is not only verbal, but verbose. Autism was long seen as a male disorder and the diagnostic criteria are based on how it presents in young boys. Despite increasing diagnoses in women, that perception has persisted in our culture and our media. Also missing from this stereotypical portrayal is the established fact that there is a notably higher percentage of LGBT+ people in the autistic community than among allistics. Finally, nonverbal autistics rarely if ever get any kind of positive representation.

Issues of representation aside, what I find most alarming in the series are the references to Autism Speaks (AS), such as Luisa’s puzzle piece necklace. Most allistic people don’t know this, but there’s a good chunk of autistic people who don’t like AS, some even referring to it as a hate group. Though it’s rebranded somewhat in recent years, AS has a history of using damaging language and being a platform for parents of autistic kids to talk about how much it has ruined their lives. While everyone has a right to discuss their own problems and reach out for support, doing so under the guise of being advocates for autistic people is a little ridiculous. The scary language AS uses to create empathy for the parents creates more stigma around autism, thus they have done more harm than good for the people they supposedly represent.

Another problem I have lies in Sam’s characterization. He doesn’t seem to understand at all when he has upset someone. Me, I can tell when I have said something wrong because of the way people react. The issue is more about understanding a) what it was that I said that was inappropriate, b) why it was inappropriate, and c) what emotion they are feeling because of it. Further, my attempts to backtrack almost always lead to me digging a bigger hole thanks to misunderstanding the issue in the first place. Of course, not everyone is the same, and I know there are lots of autistic people who struggle even more with social cues than I do. I don’t expect my experience with autism to be exactly the one reflected in the show. But, this still seems unrealistic.

Jenna Boyd as Paige Hardaway in Netflix’s Atypical, destroying a giant stuffed penguin
Paige the Penguin Slayer.

Of course, in comedy there is always hyperbole. But the moment where Sam publicly humiliates Paige feels too Sheldon-like and particularly unbefitting of his supposed sensitivity. I can’t honestly believe he had no idea that telling a girl he doesn’t love her in front of her whole family would hurt her feelings. That’s just ridiculous. Especially when he has a therapist helping him understand social conventions.

I started Atypical expecting to see some autistic characteristics exaggerated, and I was fine with that. As I said above, it’s kind of cathartic to be able to laugh at my own shortcomings. But there are some scenes, most notably that one with Paige, that feel potentially harmful. It’s tone deaf, and it inadvertently reinforces the sociopathic autistic trope. Having an autistic sensitivity reader or consultant on set could have helped them avoid errors such as these.

All that said, I am overall very happy with the series and am freely recommending it. It has been renewed for a season 2, and I am ecstatic. It’s not perfect. But as Kori likes to say, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. It feels like progress to me, and if nothing else, it is something I can relate to. Something I can show to allistic people and say “This is what it feels like.” But I do understand why some people have taken exception to Atypical. It can be argued that the show used the wrong balance of humor and heart. Perhaps the question is less whether Atypical did it well and more whether a comedy about autism is even capable of offending nobody.

Memorable Quotes

I adore quotable movies and TV shows, which was part of Atypical’s appeal for me. Since I didn’t have room for any funny quotes in the body of the review, here are some of my faves:

  • Sam: “How can I make eye contact and look away? I mean, I’m not a mantis shrimp.”
  • Elsa’s thoughts projected onto the PA system: “Welcome to Valley Marketplace, where we always treat you like family, even if you’re a cheating whore.” […] “Register seven is now open for business, just like Elsa Gardner’s vagina.”
  • Julia: “It’s a sex fruit, Miles!”
  • Lauren: “As someone with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, my formal diagnosis for you is… you cray.”
  • April: “Barry hasn’t touched me in months, fat piece of shit. Not that I want him to.”
  • Zahid: “What’s going on, man? Why are you wrapped up like a skinny white burrito?”

Images courtesy of Netflix

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