In case you’ve missed it, Atypical is about 18-year-old Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), who is on the autism spectrum, and how he and his family deal with his special needs as well as their own dramas. If this is news to you, I’m a little envious because you still have three seasons ahead of you to enjoy.
The trailer for Season 1 on Netflix leaps right in with mom Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) asking Sam how his session with his therapist went. You know, a normal dinner-table conversation starter. “She thinks I should put myself out there and find someone to have sex with,” replies Sam. Sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) chokes on her mashed potato. “She didn’t say the sex part, I added that,” continues deadpan Sam, oblivious to social conventions.
Thus the tone is set, with Sam’s brutal (from our perspective) unfiltered honesty creating situations most people would find incredibly awkward. There’s a reason why we employ little white lies on a daily basis. How are you? Please don’t tell me, really. Please to meet you. In the words of Raylan Givens from Justified: “I’d reserve judgement on that.” Use it and I guarantee you’ll be rewarded with a baffled stare.
In Seasons 1 and 2 of Atypical we’ve been through Sam’s crush on Julia (the aforementioned therapist) and touched by his friendship with co-worker Zahid (Nik Dodani); Elsa’s fling with a bartender; the revelation that father Doug (Michael Rapaport), an EMT, abandoned the family briefly when Sam was diagnosed; and Casey’s complicated relationships with boyfriend Evan (Graham Rogers – Quantico, Ray Donovan, and you’ve seen him in lots of smaller roles in series like Silicon Valley, SMILF, The Kominsky Method and Love) and former mean girl Izzie (Fivel Stewart).
The cherry on top was Sam getting a girlfriend, Paige (Jenna Boyd). This is one of the storylines developed more fully in Season 3; she is potentially the most annoying human being on the planet but is redeemed by unselfishly and unconditionally loving Sam as she battles her own raging insecurities.
At the end of Season 2, Sam had applied to go to college and this is at the centre of Season 3. What’s troubling Sam’s obsessive brain, however, is the statistic that four out of five students on the spectrum don’t graduate in the “normal” timeframe.
The first season drew criticism for not using autistic actors but remedied that from Season 2. Kerry Magro writes on The Mighty: “I love how I could relate in several ways to Sam’s character. Growing up with autism, I also started college at 19 and it was a dream come true. After years during my adolescence of being told by experts that I would be lucky to graduate from high school one day, I truly saw getting into college as a milestone that I could do anything I wanted in this world.”
Besides the challenges college presents, from fake friends and dorm life to professors who employ a type of tough love to those who waft about (Eric McCormack from Will & Grace), other storylines in the new season include Sam having to grapple with morals and ethics when Zahid – who signs up for nursing school, making Sam promise not to let him screw it up – hooks up with a girlfriend who nobody else likes. Trust me, you won’t either.
Elsa and Doug are in limbo with their marriage, and Casey is torn between Evan and Izzie. Paige is having her own set of problems at her college, and tries so hard to wrestle control of situations wherever she can; and Julia is on the periphery, offering advice to Elsa while juggling her newborn babe.
Other TV shows and films featuring characters on the spectrum include The Good Doctor (currently available on DStv Now, starring Freddie Highmore, who’s also in Bates Motel on Showmax) and The A Word.
IMDB rating: 8.3/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 80%