When Atypical was announced last October, the Netflix show’s mission was defined as a question: What does it mean to be normal? Sam (Keir Gilchrist), Atypical’s primary character, is a high-school senior who also has autism, and most of the storylines in the first eight episodes (released on Friday) revolve around “normal” teenage experiences—his efforts to get a girlfriend, his interactions with the jerky popular kids, and his desire underneath it all to fit in, and to feel less alone. And yet the show’s most consistent source of humor comes from how abnormal Sam is. How he inadvertently screams obscenities at bewildered strangers, and blurts out pickup lines he’s downloaded from the internet, and accidentally punches a girl mid-hookup because he can’t stand the way she’s touching him.
Atypical, created by Robia Rashid (The Goldbergs, How I Met Your Mother) and Seth Gordon (also The Goldbergs, as well as the recent Baywatch movie), carries a heavy burden, just because there are so few depictions of people on the spectrum in television, let alone half-hour comedies that place autism front and center. The show is obviously filled with compassion for Sam and tries hard to give the audience some sense of what his everyday experiences are like—demonstrating how clothes with too many zippers and textures overwhelm his senses by distorting sounds and visuals for viewers. But it also relies on him as a punchline, only to turn around and assail other characters who do the exact same thing.
Which is a shame, because in its finest moments Atypical is warmhearted, sincere, funny, and shrewd. It’s hard to tell whether its inconsistency is due to a blurry conception of what tone it should strike, or whether producers simply wanted to appeal to as broad a swathe of potential viewers as possible—the show skews so wildly from slapstick to gritty drama to teen soap to family sitcom that it should come with Dramamine. There’s Sam, played sensitively by Gilchrist (United States of Tara), with his obsession with penguins and all things Antarctic, and his teenage hormones. His sister, Casey (the fantastic Brigette Lundy-Paine), is both irreverent and extremely protective when it comes to her brother. “My sister doesn’t let anyone beat me up,” Sam explains in the first episode. “Except herself.”
The most bewildering aspect of the show is Sam’s mom, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose storyline seems to belong to a completely different drama. Leigh is an immensely talented actress but she seems totally miscast and underserved by the fact that Elsa is very thinly drawn (it doesn’t emerge until more than halfway through the series that she has a job as a hairdresser). Perhaps this is deliberate—to emphasize how often caregivers end up primarily defined by that role—but it doesn’t explain a baffling plotline that threads through all eight episodes and feels better suited to a kitchen-sink tragedy than the whimsical-but-earnest show Atypical strives to be. Similarly out of place is Zahid (Nik Dodani), Sam’s best friend, a dweeby and foul-mouthed lothario right out of a Judd Apatow comedy. And Sam’s therapist, Julia (Amy Okuda) starts the show as an audience surrogate for him to talk directly to, but around the seventh episode weirdly becomes a primary character.
As Sam’s dad, Doug, Michael Rapaport is sweetly and believably awkward—sidelined by his wife’s dedication to Sam but newly able to bond with his son over girl talk and trips to the aquarium. It’s at moments like these that the show finds its footing, communicating both how difficult and how special it is to be Sam, and to be in his family. Casey, a talented athlete, is consistently sidelined by her parents because Sam’s needs are more of a priority. And yet her relationship with him is charming—she accepts who he is, she doesn’t treat him with kid gloves, but she takes fierce care not to let anyone else manipulate or stereotype him.
It’s a dynamic the show could have benefited by emulating. A handful of writers with first- or second-hand experience of autism have noted that the show veers between pandering to Sam and treating him as comic relief. Rashid told The Hollywood Reporter she was inspired to write Atypical by her own personal experiences with a person on the spectrum, and that she hired a consultant and relied on feedback from others familiar with the disorder. And many of its scenes offer thoughtful insight into how Sam functions, portraying how his family “cases” restaurants before they visit them to make sure they’re Sam-friendly and replicating how uncomfortable his experiences can be. But its tonal issues often mean Sam has to be the funny one, whether intentionally or not.
Ultimately, Atypical wants people to be more sensitive to what people like Sam go through, and in that sense it succeeds. Gilchrist, who isn’t on the spectrum, is persuasive and thoughtful enough to avoid making Sam feel like a stereotype, even in more mawkish or predictable moments. And the show has some funny lines—Doug, visiting a fancy prep school, marvels how cashews “are a rich man’s nut.” But it’s hard not to long for a treatment of autism that’s as well-rounded and gutsy as ABC’s Speechless, whose creator, Scott Silveri, based it on his own experience with his brother’s disability and has spoken about the difficulty in finding the line between comedy and accuracy. Atypical’s first season proves how being entertaining and groundbreaking is a really tough balance to strike.