Atypical desperately wants to be the show that gets autism. You can see this right in the promotional poster for the show, which tells us that “normal is overrated,” which is the type of quick-fix sentiment that seeks to heal, but is only capable of pandering. This show wants to be to autism what You’re The Worst is to depression, or perhaps even what Transparent is to being transgender. Unfortunately, it trips over its feet at just about every turn, and the fact that the show so clearly thinks it’s handling the topic the right way just makes it more irritating whenever it gets things wrong.
The show centers around 18-year-old high school senior Sam (Keir Gilchrist), who is on the autism spectrum, and considered to be high-functioning. Sam’s autism is made all-too-obvious in the first scene, where he talks about how interested he is in the continent of Antarctica, and penguins in particular, because that’s type of thing that someone with autism would obsess over, right? The show goes so far in making Sam seem as autistic as possible that he winds up being nothing like an actual person with autism. All the traits on the spectrum are turned up to the absolute max, to the point of parody. Sam doesn’t merely miss social cues from time to time, he does it in every single scene. He doesn’t just occasionally say something awkward in the middle of a conversation, that happens in just about every line of dialogue he has. You’d think a show that makes an autistic character the protagonist rather than part of a supporting cast would have led to a deeper, more nuanced portrayal, but you’d be wrong. Sam’s character is far less fleshed out than Abed on Community or Moss on The IT Crowd. Honestly, even Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory feels like less of a caricature of a socially awkward person than Sam does, which is really saying something.
Confounding the problem is that Sam is also just kind of a jerk. It’s true that people on the spectrum can be oblivious to how their words can hurt the feelings of others (this would be a good time to tell you on that I’m on the spectrum myself), but Sam’s utter lack of tact is jarring. Since Sam’s whole story arc is about his attempt to get a girlfriend, let’s focus on how he handles things with Paige, the first girl at school who actually gives him the time of day. He responds to her advances by telling her how annoying she is. Then, in a move ripped-off from Ross on Friends, he makes a list of the pros and cons of dating her, which she finds out about. When she forgives him for that, and they start dating, he locks her in the closet because she wouldn’t stop touching his stuff. In spite of all of this, Paige falls harder for Sam and tells him she loves him. He is given the ultimatum of a dinner at the Olive Garden with her family to decide if he reciprocates. When he decides he doesn’t love her because he has stronger feelings for Julia, his psychiatrist (Amy Okuda), he decides to bluntly tell Paige this right in front of her entire family. Then, he barely seems to understand that she might be mad at him for this. Sam’s hyper-obliviousness to everything often manifests itself as downright unpleasant behavior, and when he tells us in the final episode that yes, autistic people can feel empathy, it’s contradictory to everything that played out so far, not unlike a movie that tells us to accept gay people after making homophobic jokes for the first 90 minutes.
The rest of Sam’s family is a little more interesting, at least. Younger sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) is by far the most fleshed-out character on the show, and it might have worked better if she had been the main focal point. Casey loves Sam, but also feels put-upon by how much time she has spend looking out for him, and neglected by the family’s constant focus on him. This is laid out quite well in a scene where she wants to tell her family that she’s been recruited by a private school due to her track-and-field prowess, but everyone is distracted by Sam’s relationship with Paige. As irritatingly one-dimensional as Sam is, the show at least does a good job of portraying Casey’s relationship with him in a complex, nuanced way. Of course, that just makes it more irritating that Atypical didn’t give the same consideration to their main character. Even Casey’s own relationship with sort-of bad-boy Evan (Graham Rogers), who got kicked out of school for stealing a tuba, is much more developed that Sam’s thing with Paige.
Sam and Casey’s parents are both terribly flawed people who sometimes try to do the right thing, but often let their worst tendencies get the better of them. Doug (Michael Rapaport) briefly left the family shortly after Sam’s diagnosis, and has never been truly comfortable with Sam’s autism. Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) organizes autism walks, and participates in support groups with parents of other autistic children, but it’s hard to say how beneficial she actually is to Sam, because she seems unwilling to let him break out into the real world. Whenever Sam actually makes progress, like wanting to date, or being willing to walk in the noisy mall without his headphones on, she seems to second guess him, and stifle his progress.
Sam has his share of issues, and you can see why his mother would be protective. But throughout the show, we get the sense that Elsa’s actions do more harm than good, especially when we consider than Sam’s crush on Julia seems to happen because she actually believes in him, a feeling he’s never felt before. The stress Elsa experiences at the expense of her family, alongside her worn-out relationship with Doug, leads her down a self-destructive path; her husband, meanwhile, receives a redemptive arc as he finally begins to take interest in Sam’s life. Elsa is portrayed as both the clingy mother who doesn’t want her son to leave the nest and someone capable of a severe betrayal. Meanwhile, Doug is shown to be a well-meaning guy who just wants to get his shit together after making a major mistake in the past. The whole thing feels more than a little unfair, and frankly pretty sexist. Elsa is a flawed character, but Doug is hardly any better, and it’s incredibly irritating when scene after scene portrays it as though he is.
Ultimately, though, the show’s biggest problem is Sam, and what a stereotypical, hyper-autistic representation he’s made out to be. This show desperately wants to get its depiction of autism right, and wants to pat itself on the back for doing so. All of which makes the uninspired characterization of Sam all the more infuriating. When South Park or Family Guy have a little fun at the expense of Asperger’s, we might say they’re punching down, but at least they make no bones about what they’re doing. This show aspires to punch up, and more importantly, to represent autistic people in the most positive way possible. Instead, anyone who watches this show and takes it seriously will just assume we’re a charity case. Atypical is basically Autism Speaks: The Sitcom.