It’s always awkward when you laugh at someone’s disability, even when it’s innocent and there’s just no holding back. Atypical helps break down the stigma that surrounds the Autism Spectrum with a wonderful humility that leaves you giggling along the way.
Atypical is one of the many series exclusive to Netflix in Australia, perfect for binging on. It follows the life of 18-year-old Sam Gardner, played by Keir Gilchrist, who is on the Autism Spectrum. Sam has decided he wants a girlfriend and so goes his quest to learn not only about dating and women but also figure out how to navigate the world as an adult without the supervision of his overpowering mother.
Each episode Sam learns something new about dating and what women want. This is all in the build up to winning over who he thinks is someone he could have as a girlfriend, also happens to be his therapist Julia. But before Sam commits to Julie he decides on a practice girlfriend, Paige played by Jenna Boyd. Also on the spectrum Paige helps Sam navigate the crazy world of women and sharing his belongings. That’s until he locks her in his cupboard for touching his things.
Actor Keir Gilchrist isn’t new to stepping out of his comfort zone for a role. His first major series was playing the gay son of Toni Collette in The United States of Tara. Gilchrist plays this character with perfection. He is awkward and confronting but manages to give Sam a warm feeling. The kind you can feel when you know someone is genuine but misunderstood. His attention to the role is detailed right from his mannerisms and specific looks related to situations.
You then have his ever-supportive sister, Casey played by Brigette Lundy-Paine,who is his support when they are at school. She’s dealing with a possible school change and a new boyfriend that not too many people like. Casey has always taken second place to Sam and struggles to adjust to this when finally Sam is relying on someone else.
Lundy-Paine who you’ll know from her roles in Woody Allan’s Irrational Man and The Glass Castle alongside Woody Harrelson. This role seemed to be a natural fit for Lundy-Pane, playing the tom boy independent woman. But she manages to have a number of layers to her which she slowly reveals as her character grows in the series. You can witness this transformation in each episode from her quiet aggressive protector of Sam to the completely smitten vulnerable side.
Sam’s mother Elsa, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, isn’t coping too well with her children growing up and not needing her as much. She makes a poor decision and ends up having an affair with a bartender Nick who finds he’s getting in a little too deep.
If there is one thing that brings this show to a point where you are no longer interested and start to feel disconnected, it’s because of Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight, Twin Peaks and The Machinist). In possibly the worst performance of the series Leigh manages to make a mockery of what is otherwise a brilliant show. There is no depth to her character and there is nothing to connect to. The role however is a believable one, so blame can only be passed to the actress for not understanding what it is this show is trying to deliver and how she can fit into it. But if you look past the terrible plastic surgery and bad performance it’s only a slight hiccup for the otherwise wonderful series.
Doug, played by Michael Rapaport, is Sam’s Father and has always had a tough time connecting with his son. He’s also been a little embarrassed telling people about the challenges he’s facing in his home life. But things change when Sam turns from relying on his mother to needing his fathers help specifically to learn about dating girls. Doug steps up to the fatherly figure he’s always wanted but was never able to be.
Rapaport has a stellar career working in Television and Cinema such as Friends, Hitch, Prison Break and Dr Dolittle 2. Rapaport manages to capture that fatherly figure that doesn’t quite know what to do but seems to pull it together. He navigates a rather complicated character from a cheating wife, a daughter now dating a boy and an autistic son he doesn’t know how to connect with. But he seems to weave the drama and hold his cool, just like a father holding his family together would.
Robia Rashid, the mastermind behind the creation of Atypical, has worked on How I Met Your Mother, Will and Grace, The Goldbergs and The Loop. And in an interview with Vulture Rashid explains she is very close to someone with Autism but wanted to keep their identity private. And to maintain respect and accuracy for her “someone”, Rashid had to do a lot of research and also brought a specialist into the process for accuracy and respect to those on the Autism Spectrum.
Rashid worked with Professor Michelle Dean in the creation and also had her on set to help the lead Actor Keir Gilchrist maintain an element of authenticity. It also helped maintain respect for those on the Autism Spectrum. In the same Vulture Q&A Rashid tells a story when the actor playing Sam reacts the wrong way so Dean steps in to correct the situation.
“For example, she watched a cut once and there was a moment where Sam’s friend Zahid (Nik Dodani) makes some crude joke at work, and Keir, the actor, looked around a tiny bit in one take. She said, “He wouldn’t look around like he wasn’t embarrassed because he wouldn’t be.” So we just changed the take where he wasn’t looking around. We were that conscious about it, right down to the eye movement”.
And you can see the accuracy and detail Rashid has maintained throughout the show has given it a whole meaningful depth. It isn’t about mocking those on the Autism Spectrum, but breaking down that stigma and letting you laugh at the situations, not the person.
Overall this is a wonderful real look at an 18-year-old wanting to break out, find his independence and live a life like his family and peers. But getting there is all part of the journey, just twice as hard. It will make you laugh, make you cry and most certainly open your mind to Autism and the judgement that goes with it. There can’t be judgement passed when you laugh out loud because he got a hand job in an igloo.
Review by Jay Cook