My teen son has autism. Here's what Netflix's new dramedy Atypical gets wrong.
To me, Sam feels "written," not lived
Later this month, my son Archer will turn 16 years old and start his junior year of high school. My wife and I are already nervously watching the calendar, knowing in two short years, he'll be a college freshman — a milestone most parents dread. Adding to our anxiety is that Archer has an autistic spectrum disorder. He's high-functioning and excels academically; but his personal quirks and shaky social skills will complicate his adulthood, in ways that sometimes keep us up at night.
That's also a fairly common experience for modern moms and dads, especially as we enter an era when the surging wave of kids diagnosed with autism at the start at the 21st century begin to come of age. That dynamic is mainstream enough to be the subject of a new eight-episode Netflix dramedy, Atypical.
Because so many families are going through this right now, Netflix and the show's creator Robia Rashid will face some scrutiny about whether or not they got the situation right. Frankly, the answer to that is mixed. The average viewer will likely find Atypical easy to watch. It's well-acted, compelling, and often quite moving. But for people with autism and their mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters ... well, let's just say there may be some concerns.
Rashid previously worked as a writer on the likes of Aliens in America, How I Met Your Mother, and The Goldbergs, which suggests a facility for conventional sitcom beats that Atypical largely eschews. This show is more serialized and more serious, following a high school senior named Sam (played by Keir Gilchrist) as he takes strides toward his goal of finding a girlfriend. Michael Rapaport and Jennifer Jason Leigh play his parents Doug and Elsa, who have differing opinions on their son's quest for independence — as well as about the health of their own marriage, which has suffered from the stress of raising Sam.
Atypical's stealthy all-star is Brigitte Lundy-Paine as Sam's younger sister Casey, a budding track star experiencing her own first romantic relationship, with a local ne'er-do-well (played by Graham Rogers). Lundy-Paine is a very likable young actress, and her storyline — more familiarly "TV-ish" — ironically feels less forced than the rest of the show. Even the way Casey interacts with Sam is more natural. She protects him fiercely at school, but treats him like any other teenage sibling would at home, teasing him about his eccentricities.
That's real. Or, I should say, that's real as far as what I've experienced myself, as the father of a 15-year-old boy with autism and his neurotypical 12-year-old sister.
I want to be careful here, because I've come to realize in recent years that writing about my son in some ways does a disservice to the autistic community. Ever since Archer was diagnosed at age 3, I've periodically incorporated my impressions of him into commentary on a popular culture that's become more engaged with autism over the past decade. My primary complaint 10 years ago was that too many movies and TV series considered autism only in terms of how it affected the non-autistic. In recent years, it's been refreshing to see more of a focus on people with ASD as individuals, not as problematic puzzle-pieces.
But last year when I wrote about the subject, a commenter on the spectrum complained — justifiably — that people like my son should be telling their own stories, rather than having folks like me presume to be their voice.
So let me be clear that I can't truly speak to the accuracy of Gilchrist's portrayal of Sam in Atypical. Instead, I'll point to a rather scathing Atypical critique that an actor with autism, Mickey Rowe, leveled in Teen Vogue. Among other things, Rowe complains that the show lacked the voices of real people with ASD in the creative process — which may explain why Sam is too much of a fictional construct, deployed for easy comedy and melodrama.
For example, Atypical's driving premise is that Sam wants a girlfriend, but Rashid and her writers have a hard time articulating why, and largely fail to put his mission in a larger cultural context. Is he motivated by sexual urges, or a deeper need for normalcy? Given that Sam's a computer whiz, surely he knows how to access porn. For that matter, he should be more aware of online discussion groups for people on the spectrum.
These real-world considerations are either ignored or downplayed, so that Sam's quixotic quest can be played more for laughs or pathos — whether he's wearing noise-canceling headphones on a date in a crowded coffee shop, or he's sneaking into his therapist's house in the middle of the night to declare his affection for her. Sam researches topics like "flirting," but unlike his obsessive fact-gathering on arctic animals (his favorite topic), he never progresses in what he learns about romance beyond basic, easily misinterpreted instructions like "smile more."
Granted, I have to admit that Sam's grimacing, toothy attempt at a welcoming grin resembles my son's whenever someone asks him to smile for a picture. And there are other similarities too: like the way Sam is unselfconsciously honest about his likes and dislikes, and the way he tosses out little "Did You Know?" factoids on penguins. (For Archer it would be "Fun Fact!"s on math, video games, or international air travel.)
It's also admirable whenever Atypical tries to take viewers inside Sam's experience of the world — like when he decides to start dressing more "cool" and then gets distracted by the noise his new leather jacket makes. The show features sporadic narration from Sam, and those are generally the moments when it presents him most as a complicated person and not a collection of textbook ASD tendencies.
Yet even in those more nuanced portrayals of Sam, I wondered: Where is his sense of humor? Why does he rarely seem to take any actual joy in his hobbies? Does it really make sense that he'd be so isolated from his classmates and even his teachers, given that many of them would've watched him grow up (not to mention their having encountered other individuals with autism both in popular culture and in real life)?
Again, my interpretation of Atypical's version of autism is affected by what I've seen. I'm aware that my son's lively personality, strong support-system, and persistent challenges can't really be generalized beyond himself. It's also unfair to storytellers to scrutinize everything from the perspective of the "expert." For the most part, audiences for movies about space travel aren't astronauts, and folks who watch TV series about emergency rooms aren't doctors.
Still, I can't deny that to me, Sam always felt "written," not lived. Atypical reminded me of one of ABC's recent sitcoms about social misfits — like Speechless, or The Real O'Neals — except that it doesn't compensate for its broader strokes with funny jokes.
That's why I wish the show focused more on the parents. Rapaport and Leigh give very natural, at times heartbreaking performances. Atypical is at its best when it digs into how Elsa hesitates to let Sam try new things, because she's been conditioned to expect the worst whenever her son's dropped into something new — and has decided long ago that it's easier just to cut off any potential trouble before it starts.
That's not just true, it's painfully true. I'm betting even parents of neurotypical children have experienced something similar. In a well-told story, the specific can open up to become more universal, if those specifics are unique, personal, and carefully chosen. Too often, Atypical defaults to the typical.