Casey’s older brother Sam has autism. He’s high-functioning enough to go to a mainstream high school, but Casey has never known a life where her needs, her mother Elsa’s, and her father Doug’s, weren’t secondary to Sam’s. She remembers that Sam and Elsa used to refer to other people as “NTs” — short for neurotypical — but to her young ears, it sounded like they were saying “empty.”
“Which makes sense,” she adds, “because sometimes it feels like Sam takes up so much space that everyone around him needs to be empty.”
The new Netflix series Atypical seems at first as if it will primarily be the story of Sam (Keir Gilchrist) struggling to navigate a world demanding basic skills — reading body language and other social cues, for instance — that always seem just beyond him. But the smartest thing the series does is to realize that Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and Doug (Michael Rapaport) are just as important to the story — and just as dependent on Sam as he is on them.
The series — created by Robia Rashid (The Goldbergs, How I Met Your Mother), with many episodes directed by Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses, The King of Kong), it debuts on Friday (I’ve seen all eight episodes) — is a slightly darker companion piece to ABC’s excellent Speechless, which also ably dramatizes the challenges that come with being part of a special needs family, even if you don’t have special needs yourself. This one’s more sexually frank — much of the first season revolves around Sam’s quest to get a girlfriend and lose his virginity — and less silly, though Speechless is much more successful at delivering jokes, where Atypical plays more like one of those Showtime half-hours circa 2011 (when Gilchrist was the son on one of them, United States of Tara) that were labeled comedies more for their running time than for how funny they were.
In fact, Atypical is often least interesting when it’s going for straightforward humor, whether it’s Sam seeking romantic advice from his smarmy afterschool job co-worker Zahid (Nik Dodani)(*) or Sam’s therapist Julia (Amy Okuda) leaping to the wrong conclusion when a lovestruck Sam accidentally leaves a chocolate-covered strawberry in her apartment. There’s a very important, delicate line that a comedy like this can’t cross: the one where it could be seen as inviting viewers to laugh at Sam’s many quirks (his obsession with penguins and all other things Antarctic, for instance). Atypical never crosses it — Gilchrist’s performance is too sincere and vulnerable to allow it — but at times a lot of the whimsy is generated from how exasperated his loved ones are at dealing with him.
(*) Though that at least has an amusing payoff towards the end of the season, and Zahid’s deep reservoir of affection for Sam makes him hard to dislike overall.
Instead, Atypical is at its most effective when it gets out of its main character’s head and wanders over to other members of his family — Casey and Doug, in particular. Leigh’s the most celebrated member of the cast, and does strong work, but Elsa gets involved in a storyline that plays like a season two idea that got rushed, and is less effective because of how little we know her when it begins. She’s also Sam’s fiercest advocate and the family member best educated on the ins and outs of life on (or near) the autism spectrum, where the series finds both more conflict and more compassion from seeing how Doug (a well-meaning guy who still struggles to hide how much it hurts to have nothing in common with his son) and Casey (a track star who has had to turn herself into her older brother’s bodyguard and surrogate mom at times) deal with him. Doug is the kind of imperfect regular Joe character that Rapaport can play so well, and many of Atypical‘s most poignant moments involve father tentatively reaching out to son, and vice versa. Relative newcomer Lundy-Paine (styled to resemble Keira Knightley circa Bend It Like Beckham) is terrific playing a girl who’s been forced by circumstance to be stronger than she’s ready to be, and the show has a lot of fun with Casey’s attitude that nobody can make fun of her brother — except her.
The CDC has estimated that 1 in 68 children in America are somewhere on the spectrum, and while TV has introduced some notable characters in recent years with autistic traits — Sheldon on Big Bang Theory, Temperance on Bones, Abed on Community — they usually stop short of using the diagnosis. So this is still relatively fresh territory for Atypical to cover. It could very easily just show the world through Sam’s eyes and call it a day, but so much of its charm comes from getting to know the rest of the family on a level that Sam himself may never fully understand.
“I’m a weirdo,” Sam tells us in the first of many voiceover segments. “That’s what everyone says. Sometimes, I don’t know what people mean when they say things, and that can make me feel alone, even if there are other people in the room.”
By the time you finish Atypical‘s first season, you’ll understand how Sam can feel that way — and also how Casey, Elsa, and Doug can also find themselves feeling alone even if Sam is in the room.