When you think about sitcoms and dramas, "autism" is not often the first word that pops into your mind, but that is exactly what Atypical, one of the newest offerings from Netflix, is all about. Following the life of high school senior Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), Atypical breaks boundaries in TV and pop culture by featuring a main character who lives life on the autism spectrum. The show sells itself as a hot-topic drama, but the actual story branches out in a few surprising, meaningful areas.
Atypical is definitely about being on the spectrum, but more importantly, the show breaks out of its marketing-friendly label and dives into the complications surrounding people with autism. It's about the relationships — family, romance and rivalries fill the screen.
Clearly, Atypical was already set to be a socially important show, but how does it work, and why does the focus on outward complications with autism make it more effective?
The Storytelling In Atypical
As a TV show, Atypical is best described as a sitcom. Some call it a dark comedy, but while it has its fair share of dark and off-color moments, Atypical patches up its wounds with inspirational moments. It's a balanced story.
Much of Atypical is told through Sam Gardner's eyes, taking the viewer through scenes with distorted sound and light to simulate how Sam experiences much of the world. This is a creative way to introduce those unfamiliar with autism to its many complications. The show also takes a look at the role of therapy in Sam's life.
While Atypical might not be standard bingeing material, each episode is woven with an infectious blend of laughs, reflections and revelations.
What About Autism?
How heavily does Atypical lean on autism to feed the story, and does it represent the disorder accurately? Placing a hot social topic at the center of the show is always an invitation for criticism, and it's also temptation to use the subject matter as a crutch. Does Atypical fall into this trap?
For the most part, Sam's autism stays at the core of the story without being exploited. Since the autism spectrum encompasses such a wide variety of symptoms, it's difficult to say whether or not Atypical is an accurate representation, but in the end, accuracy is not as big an issue as it could be. Atypical only focuses on Sam's autism when it makes sense to do so in the story. The show doesn't rely on autism to carry it through the low points, nor does it doesn't use autism for cheap thrills. Atypical is careful, thoughtful and aware when Sam's autism comes into play.
However, autism doesn't come into play as often as you'd think.
Atypical is rooted in the concept of family. Because Sam lives on the autism spectrum, he requires help from his sister to get through school, support from his mother when he's emotionally tired and tips for his father when he's unsure how to act around girls.
Every member of the Gardner family has:
- A Strong Personality. Initially, Atypical introduces them in relation to how they interact with Sam, but it isn't long before the personality of each character shines through.
- Their Own Problems. Sure, Sam has autism, but Casey Gardner has boyfriend problems and school problems. Elsa Gardner (Jennifer Jason Leigh) gets caught up in a messy affair. Doug Gardner is struggling to find his place in the family as everyone begins changing in drastic ways.
- Their Own Story. Atypical does a fantastic job of weaving together multiple narratives into each episode. Each character has their ups and downs, and the show takes the time to develop the character arcs.
How Does It Mix?
Autism is a complicated, diverse subject. It affects people differently and presents unique challenges in every situation. With so many variables, how does Atypical pull off a story that stays engaging and emotional?
The first thing Atypical does right is reach beyond Sam's character to show how autism changes the lives of everyone around him, and how everyone is still valid as an individual. Autism is not a one-person experience. Life isn't, either. Atypical harmonizes on the idea that it doesn't matter if you're odd, people still love you.
In essence, Atypical is not a show only about autism. It isn't just a comedy or a drama or a lighthearted story you'll forget in a day's time. Atypical is about people who are related to each other, and it's about learning how to relate better.
What aspect of Atypical impacted you the most?