I come from the generation before everyone was included. The high school I attended did not hand out gold stars, and if you didn’t want to participate, no one would make you. My school was not strict, per se, but the rules were set. Sure, there were often outcasts (one guy pretended he was the WWE Undertaker every day during lunch at a specific set time), but most of us were just trying to blend in and not be noticed.
Now as an educator, I often see students just trying to fit in. Try as they might, some just can’t. It’s more heartbreaking to witness as a teacher, as I watch freshmen, sophomores and juniors try to be cool. The awkward phase of your pubescent years are even more heightened when they are noticed by your high school teacher. Since entering the profession of education and freelancing for this site, I have made a point to digest more young adult material. In a year where we’ve been given Riverdale, 13 Reasons Why and American Vandal, I’m more heartened by Atypical, a voice that has gone mostly unheard.
Is Atypical the latest brilliance from Netflix? Far from it, but the show is a solid effort in terms of inclusion, telling a cheesy but heartfelt story centered around the Gardner family. Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist) has autism, and his parents Elsa and Doug (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and lovable Michael Rapaport) and younger sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) meander through their own problems while taking care of Sam’s. On the surface, this family is fairly normal. They eat dinner at the table each night. Elsa hovers over Sam and Casey, who is a high school track star. Dad is a paramedic. The family seems normal and boring based on just the pilot.
As the storyline expands, however, Sam’s latest dilemma draws attention to the cracks in the facade of the Gardner family. So far, Sam’s problems, which range from finding his favorite tri-blend t-shirt to choosing to cross the street with his eyes closed, are minor in comparison to his latest interest. For his psychiatrist, Dr. Julia, has convinced Sam that it is quite all right to find someone to date and, once he’s comfortable, to have sex. The first season blossoms into an awkward coming of age for Sam, who is sweetly sincere in his quest to meet a compatible girl.
Choosing to tell a story about an autistic boy who desires to enter the dating world is a tough one, and creator Robia Rashid (who was an executive editor on How I Met Your Mother) does not fully pull off the material. And through the past years, the media has fetishized the idea of an autistic protagonist. From the novel turned Broadway adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, which tells a detective tale from the perspective of a child with autism, to the terribly depressing book and film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, where a boy on the spectrum loses his father during 9/11, most of these stories offer protagonists with autism that are emotionless and too complex. Each of these main characters are isolated, where even their own parents do not understand them or their condition. Luckily, Parenthood was an exception, a warm depiction of Adam and Kristina Braverman’s beginning journey as they learn their son is diagnosed with autism.
Fortunately, Sam Gardner is lovable. He loves to eat buttered noodles and he giggles to himself as he thinks about how funny penguins are on the bus. He’s genuine. “Well, I think every girl is pretty in her own way, like a snowflake in a seasonal Antarctic storm,” he says to himself as he walks down his high school hallways. This genuine attitude carries into his relationship with his parents. Throughout the season, Doug does not try to isolate his son but instead includes him in almost everything. He explains to his wife Elsa in the pilot that he hopes that he can share one hobby with his son. As the show progresses, Sam unlatches from Elsa’s watch and becomes closer to Doug. From trips to the zoo to Doug fashioning an igloo for his son in the final two episodes, the kindness from the Gardner parents builds the foundation for Sam’s progression through each episode. They truly desire for him to be happy, even if they are uncomfortable with his desire to join dating sites and meet young women he does not know.
The most important facet of Atypical, however, is the relationship Sam builds with Paige, his girlfriend in the later episodes, who convinces the school board to change their dance from a loud raucous event to a silent one. Trading a DJ for a pair of headphones, everyone makes the dance comfortable for Sam. As he joins in, he sees that all of his peers, including those who have ignored him or picked at him, are jamming out in their own microcosm. In these moments they are isolated, similar to the isolation Sam experiences every day. The dance is even themed to be set in a winter tundra where plastic penguins are posted up and an igloo is set as its centerpiece. A big gesture in comparison is the most endearing quality of Atypical. It takes one person to speak up, but to make everyone feel included is a collective effort. This show shines in its later episodes, because as we strip away some of the messy material that does not really work (Elsa’s infidelity, Dr. Julia’s arc and Casey’s own personal journey), we are left with a central theme. Although people may not show it, everyone desires to be wanted, to feel a part of something. Atypical is a step in the right direction.