Arts, Television, Review

Autistic Character Revitalizes Ordinary High School Storyline



Does a coming-of-age story of a high school boy and his family sound familiar? Not when autism is thrown into that tried-and-tested formula. With so little autism representation in the media, the second season of the Netflix show Atypical delivers a funny, poignant family comedy that will leave audiences laughing one second and tearing up the second, all the while showing a family with an autistic member, dealing with the trials and tribulations of life just as any other family would.

Atypical tells the story of Sam, a high school senior high on the autism spectrum, and his friends and family around him. The show picks up from the first season, when Sam’s sister Casey finds out about their mother’s affair with a bartender, and angrily confronts her in the form of an aggressive kitchen blackboard message. This confrontation throws a wrench in the family when the father Doug finds out. As the divided couple tries to reconcile their feelings and make sense of the situation, Sam is trying to deal with the massive amounts of change in his life–deciding whether to go to college, finding a new therapist, and figuring out his relationship with his ex-girlfriend. Meanwhile, Casey transfers to a new, snobby private school and has to deal with new friendships, heartaches, and being away from her brother, who she has always looked out for. The family has to deal with their internal conflicts as well as external pressures, while the two teenagers discover themselves and grow from their experiences.

Narration by Sam weaves through the entire show, but unlike others where the narration is directly about what is occurring, Sam is usually talking about certain behaviors of penguins—his passion—that corresponds with certain situations and acts as a great metaphor to what is happening in the plot at the time.

Atypical really excels in the family comedy genre. The characters feel real and personal. They have distinct personalities and flaws, and all add something to the show. Although each has a distinct type (for example, Sam’s ex-girlfriend is the high-strung valedictorian), no character only acts like a stereotype, and each has moments that touch and surprises the audience, making the show and the characters all the more relatable. None of the characters are ever painted in a black-and-white, one-dimensional way, which contributes greatly to the complexity of the show.

Atypical has great comedic timing and some side-splitting moments. Jokes are never too contrived, and just happen naturally with the ebb and flow of the conversation. The plot is well thought out and not predictable, and one really does begin to become invested in and feel for these characters. Actions have consequences, and the show, while comedic, is definitely plot driven. One action leads to another, and everything that happens the show has a place of origin and a meaning for the future, which is a good change from comedic shows that often forsake the plot for the sake of comedy. Because of this, the audience truly becomes invested in the characters, and goes through the tensions and the joys with them because the show does not let that investment down.

The show deals with Sam’s autism very well. Although an emphasis of the show, Sam’s autism is never specifically highlighted to make it seem strange or unnatural. He has his own way of doing things, and although his family and friends do not always understand what he is doing, they support him and accept him as he is. Although a very effective comedy, the show never makes Sam the butt of the joke. An especially memorable moment comes as Sam’s guidance counselor suggests him to write about his autism on his college application essay, to which he replies: “Autism isn’t an accomplishment. It’s something I was born with. You wouldn’t write about having 10 fingers and 10 toes, would you? No, because that would be really really really dumb.”

Atypical also deals with the societal stigma surrounding autism, and people who either do not know or choose not to learn about it, and how it can seriously hurt those with autism and their families. At one point in the show, Sam wanders out at night and gets arrested, as the police officer interpreted his distress to mean that he was on drugs. Sam’s family, incredibly hurt at the police officer’s actions and at the emotional distress Sam had endured, decides to start a training program for emergency response personnel about how to respond to autistic people.

Atypical is a thoughtful look on autism and what it is like, while also being entertaining and fun. Although lighthearted, the show can also address serious topics, which is really where it excels. Atypical is great for anyone who likes family comedies, and can educate audiences about autism without feeling preachy. Overall, Atypical fulfills its purpose and is a genuine, enjoyable show.

Featured Image by Netflix

September 9, 2018

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