There’s a term I use regarding disability in media called “caretaker entertainment.” It’s generally in reference to a show or movie where the viewpoints of nurses, parents, siblings, and other caretakers are prioritized and utilized as a means of accessing entry to the otherwise opaque world of the disabled. It’s also a means of prioritizing creative’s stories who maybe aren’t disabled, but have experience living with those who are.
“As We See It” follows three twenty-somethings living on the spectrum. Jack (Rick Glassman) is a highly intelligent web designer struggling for financially stability after his father (Joe Mantegna) reveals he has cancer. Harrison (Albert Rutecki) is kindhearted but can’t quite leave the trio’s Los Angeles apartment. And Violet (Sue Ann Pien) desperately wants a boyfriend, but tends to assume attention equals love and marriage. They’re guided through life’s social situations with the help of home healthcare aid and burgeoning doctor, Mandy (Sosie Bacon).
Amazon Prime Video’s drama is a show with good intentions. Creator Jason Katims has a son with Asperger’s, which also influenced the writer and producer’s NBC series “Parenthood,” and his latest series has cast a trio of performers who identify as on the spectrum. The problem lies within the notion of “caretaker entertainment,” which seeks to balance the viewpoints of those living with autism and those bearing only a spectator’s knowledge of it. Also unsettling: Though there were writers with autism in the writers’ room, one is credited throughout the eight episodes; none of the directors identified as being on the spectrum.
Both the production choices and on-screen results present a show that cops out of its own title. “As We See It” is about perception, which means the caretakers’ opinions are valued equally with Violet, Jack, and Harrison’s, yet the series seems to at least lean on the side of those who are neurotypical. The titular “We” may not be who you think.
Bacon’s Mandy and Chris Pang’s Van, Violet’s brother, are given social lives outside of the apartment focused on their professional and personal goals. Van, in his case, spends a significant amount of time discussing how Violet ruins his relationships and generally chastising those who would seek to help Violet be her own woman. And nearly every episode ends with Mandy making decisions about her life outside of what she’s doing with the trio.
Ali Goldstein/Amazon Prime Video
In some instances, their opinions are wrong and fall back on tropes that haven’t just plagued portrayals of autism, but disability in general. Van couches his concern for Violet as fear that she’s a target for violence. Violet uses Bumble on her phone, goes on bad dates, and falls into a situation with a guy who treats her poorly. Van sees these as proof she needs to be “protected,” yet these are issues that women face daily. At one point, Violet is given a morning-after pill with no scene of her assessing the situation, just wordlessly taking the pill in a moment that feels scummy as can be.
It’s a shame because any portrayal of disability or neurodivergence is already relegated to white males and Violet’s story should be seen onscreen. Sue Ann Pien is the MVP of the series, making Violet acerbic, humorous, and warm. She wants to be perceived as beautiful and sexual, yet is constantly told she should date other autistic men because regular guys will use her. She solicits advice for other women, which Van weirdly gets upset about, and just seems like an average girl. Thankfully, the series flattens the sharp edges with Mandy taking an active stand on Van’s infantilism of his sister, but it feels too little, too late. The way the season ends implies things might be going into a more positive direction, but why rely on tropes to get there? Why not break them immediately?
Pien is stellar but Glassman and Rutecki are just as great and, being guys, appear to have less cringe-worthy storylines. Where Violet’s attempts at a relationship are presented in ways that are often embarrassing and couched in concerns of reproductive control, Jack’s courtships come off far cuter. Jack is curt and lacking in affect but it attracts Nigerian nurse Ewatomi (Dele Ogundiran), whom Jack meets while at his dad’s doctor. Jack’s relationship with his father Lou, and Lou’s sickness, frightens Jack into becoming his own man. There’s compelling discussions about “passing” for neurotypical and Jack’s issues of being alone that, again, are universal and intriguing. The same can be said for Rutecki’s Harrison, who struggles to find friends because of his youthful nature that hurtful adults find disturbing.
But it’s hard not to go back to the caregivers, whose stories are meant to give a balancing perspective but just come off as ableist at times. Both Lou and Harrison’s parents spend time discussing how hard their life was raising their children. In Harrison’s case, especially, his parents give an entire speech about wanting to move out of state to “give themselves a chance.” Later, Lou talks about how he initially wished he had any other child, but having Jack “made [him] better” as a person. (Yes, because the role of any disabled/neurodivergent person’s life is to make other people better.) Mandy is there to offer a sympathetic ear, but generally plays both sides of the fence and Bacon is so damn charming it’s hard not to wish her character was far more forceful with those clearly overstepping their boundaries.
“As We See It” has the potential to show their autistic cast’s true perspectives, but the writing certainly needs to be more reflective of a neurodivergent POV. Pien, Rutecki, and Glassman are great, as is Bacon, but if you’re at all on the spectrum and/or a disabled viewer, expect a lot of treacle that’s not meant to make you feel seen.
“As We See It” premieres Friday, January 21 on Amazon Prime Video. The full first season will be released at once.