How often is a TV show led by a character that is on the autism spectrum? “Atypical” brings some much needed representation to the autistic community. Between this and ABC’s “Speechless,” the shows hopefully signal more projects showing more varied depictions of people with a disability or disorder. However, for as much as “Atypical” feels fresh on this front, the storytelling does make some tonal and plot missteps, particularly as it concerns the parents.
Sam (Keir Gilchrist), an eighteen year old on the autistic spectrum, wants what most teenagers his age do, a girlfriend. Upon talking with his therapist, Julia (Amy Okuda), Sam decides to put himself out there at school and find a girlfriend. This comes as a shock to his family. His mother, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), struggle’s with Sam’s newfound independence, which causes her to act out. Sam’s Father, Doug (Michael Rapaport), uses this as an opportunity to gain a greater understanding of his Son. While Sam goes through this new chapter, his younger sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) takes her running career to the next level.
Keir Gilchrist, while he does not identify on the autistic spectrum, manages to turn in a sensitive and affecting performance as Sam, the central character. There has been some criticism of not casting an actor who is on the autistic spectrum. This is a valid point, as there is a degree of authenticity that an actor who has a similar diagnosis could bring to the role. However, if we are judging on the performance on screen, Gilchrist is quite winning. There’s a tricky line to walk where one must accurately depict a condition that isn’t represented on TV very often, while also not making it seem like an “after-school special.” The show’s biggest success comes from highlighting how a teenager on the spectrum goes through so many of the same challenges we’ve seen in other high school projects.
Following the dating life of a teenager on the spectrum is a fresh and exciting perspective on the typical high school tropes. In exploring Elsa’s quest for romance, the show evades being cutesy or talking down to the audience. Where the show missteps are in the complimenting subplots throughout the eight episodes. Elsa’s infidelity and Doug’s past time off from the family exist to illustrate the strain parents may feel. However, they come off as soapy distractions from what makes the show unique. They feel like TV tropes shoehorned in to engage the audience with tried and true plot points. However, in doing so, the show appears to be in tonal whiplash, unsure of its end goal.
The performer that falls most victim to the tonal incongruities in the show is Oscar nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh. The actress delivers no less than her best every time she is on screen, regardless of the size of her role. The news that Leigh has landed the starring role in a Netflix show would appear to be incredibly welcome news. However, the more traditional role never gels with her strengths as a harder, acidic and, for lack of a better word, cooler performer. Leigh conveys the weariness of Elsa quite well. However, the way other characters describe her and her tenacity never seem to align with Leigh’s interpretation. She deserves a show and character tailor fit for her. Unfortunately, here she’s shoehorned into an archetype that she isn’t quite a fit.
If there were points for good intentions, “Atypical” would rack up buckets. Outside of the main storyline, the B and C plots are more hit and miss. Lundy-Paine exudes complexity as Casey loves her brother but grows frustrated by her successes and development taking a backseat. On the other hand, a late season development with Julia leaves Okuda in the lurch. The good intentions crumble under these wild plot points and tonal shifts. If the show continues, hopefully the writers delve more within the autistic spectrum community to further depict a world and characters we frankly don’t see enough of.