[Editor’s Note: The following review is spoiler-free through the first page. Readers will be warned before spoilers begin.]
Some things can’t be said often enough, and “it’s OK to be weird” is certainly one of those phrases. Encouraging children and teens to resist conforming is essential parenting, especially during those pivotal, confidence-building, developmental years. (Without embracing these lovely idiosyncrasies, how else would they grow up to reject the normalization of much more dangerous conduct?)
So to chastise a TV series for repeating a similar message as a horde of pre-existing teen dramas is a bit short-sighted. Perhaps “Atypical” is the one that breaks through to young viewers. Maybe its status as a Netflix original series will lend it more power in reaching a wider audience. Or it could simply be the right encouragement at the right time.
That’s about all that can be said for creator Robia Rashid’s (“The Goldbergs”) premise, however. (The length, mind you, is a special blessing: half-hour episodes for a drama-comedy hybrid which leans further toward the former.) Chronicling the 18-year-old life of a young man on the autistic spectrum, “Atypical” does a fine job capturing choice insights into our protagonist’s mind, but its overarching story is as predictable as they come.
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Meet Sam (Keir Gilchrist). Sam is a high school student who works part-time at an electronics store. The fact that he’s on the autistic spectrum has dictated a lot of his life choices, but, as teens are prone to do, he’s ready to rebel. He wants more. He wants to live. He wants, as he puts it, to see boobs.
This central thesis of Season 1 is quickly affirmed. Sam wants to start dating, and he’s willing (eager, really) to do the research on how one goes about getting a girlfriend. To the series’ credit, Sam’s intentions are almost always pure. His open desire to look at a woman’s breasts isn’t brought up often, and when it is, the statement illustrates how Sam’s unfiltered honesty can be a benefit or a detriment to his dating life.
Helping in his quest are five prominent figures. Primarily, he talks to his therapist, Julia (Amy Okuda). Sometimes we watch chunks of the sessions unfold at once, while other times we’re meant to understand Sam’s narration stems from what he’s saying in therapy. (There are a few times when his narration is disconnected and inexplicable, but it’s not noticeable enough to berate.) Therapy allows for big exposition dumps, but Rashid usually keeps them from feeling too convenient.
Elsewhere, his sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) is Sam’s go-to source for advice and security. Their relationship is like any other brother-sister duo, except her status as the younger sibling is usurped by her responsibility to look out for Sam. She embraces it. He accepts it. She tells him he’ll never get a date. He knows she’s joking. They work well together.
Meanwhile, Sam literally works with his best friend, Zahid (Nik Dodani). Zahid is the first of two problematic characters, but the lesser pain to be sure. Unfortunately for all parties, Zahid is saddled with some truly terrible teen dialogue, like “get out your GPS because I’m taking you to Poon City.” No, “Atypical” isn’t a period drama set during those few years when Garmins and TomToms dominated in-car navigation, but the real issue with Zahid is that he’s not a convincing ladies man. Sometimes they make it seem like he is, and other times he’s meant to look foolish. Neither really takes, though his comfortable, unforced friendship with Sam works — in quieter moments.
Sam shares a similar, burgeoning bond with his father, Doug (Michael Rapaport). Though he was more reliant on his mother when he was younger (a backstory the show teases ever so briefly and digs into ever so lightly), the need to talk about girls brings father and son closer together.
Continue reading for the most troublesome character and a final grade for “Atypical.”