Netflix used to be a place where every exclusive knocked it out of the park but that’s changed a bit once the exclusives started to overwhelm us, with shows arriving every few days to the service. So now, it’s not quite as reliable. When I saw the trailer for Atypical, I was hoping this would be a home run. Is it?
The show focuses on Sam (Keir Gilchrist), a high school teenager on the autistic spectrum, who is trying to wrap his head around love and life. He has a supportive family, including his parents (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michael Rapaport) and a sister who is trying to help Sam as much as she can, while also competing in track and field (Brigette Lundy-Paine). We also have Sam’s therapist Julia (Amy Okuda) and one of Sam’s potential love interests Paige (Jenna Boyd).
I have to preface with the fact that I have very little knowledge of the autistic spectrum and those inside that community. So I can’t speak to the accuracy of this series, just know that.
Here’s what I can speak to. It felt authentic. I never felt like the actors were overreaching, I never felt like situations were heavy-handed. Sam felt like a character that could reasonably exist, though of course our lead character can’t represent all people on the spectrum. Keir Gilchrist’s performance was the highlight of the show for me, presenting Sam as a character just looking to fit in and not quite understanding why he didn’t sometimes. Sam was likeable, even when he was blunt and rude, because you wanted him to succeed, you wanted him to find happiness and that quest is really what makes this show work.
The supporting cast around Gilchrist is also really solid, especially his sister played by Brigette Lundy-Paine, who struggles with putting herself first, when she’s so used to being there as support for her brother. This internal conflict felt real, focusing on someone who was in that “caretaker” role and maybe given up things for the sake of their loved ones. Or the reverse, maybe the hesitation to actually take new opportunities and having to cope with the fact that maybe you’re not needed, as much as you thought you were anyways. This conflict was super intriguing to watch unfold.
For a show that tackles something so important, this show perfectly balances that with a tone that is fun to watch. It’s laugh out loud funny and the music is toe-tapping. The colors are vivid and bright, every episode is a delight to watch. Even when things go sideways, the show’s tone is one that it’s easy to binge back-to-back.
The parents are likely the most divisive aspects of this show. The father (Michael Rapaport) doesn’t really get much to do, while the mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) gets a sideplot that only makes her less likeable. I do understand the intent, that being a caretaker can be draining and you might lose your sense of your own identity, but this plot really didn’t connect to Sam at all, so it’s hard to justify the screentime spent when it really detracts from our lead character’s story.
I’ve also read that some folks closer to those actually on the spectrum have had qualms with Gilchrist’s performance as Sam. Again, I found him endearing, but if you’re more “in the loop,” you may see things more critically.
This show is likely meant for those relatively unaware of issues for those on the autistic spectrum, so this can be an illuminating and informational series. The exposition might come off as heavy-handed if you’re already educated. I found Keir Gilchrist’s performance spectacular and the show in general really vibrant and enjoyable, even at its most heart-wrenching moments. It’s only eight episodes and well worth a watch, in my opinion.