Atypical: a Show About Unconditional Love

 

Since the beginning of high school, the term “winter break” (in my vocabulary) has been synonymous with “a seriously long Netflix binge.” This year was no different, despite the various promises I made to myself to do something exciting with my time. I watched a total of 9 seasons of different shows, such as You, Love Island, and Elite. While interesting, the best show I binge-watched over break was Atypical: a family sitcom centered around an 18-year-old-boy named Sam Gardner, who is on the autism spectrum. 

While centered around Sam, Atypical is great because it dives into detail about a number of characters. The Gardner family and their ever-changing dynamic are really the focus of Atypical. Casey is Sam’s 16-year-old sister, who struggles with feeling “empty” both because of Sam and because of her issues with friends, sex, and love. Elsa Gardner, Sam and Casey’s mom, is working to find an identity outside of being a mother to two children and ends up in an extramarital affair. Doug Gardner, their dad, is both fighting his issues with his marriage, as well as his issues with being a parent to a kid on the spectrum. 

Outside of the Gardner family, their friends and significant others get intricate plot lines as well: Zahid (Sam’s coworker and friend), Paige (Sam’s on and off again girlfriend), Julia (Sam’s therapist), Evan (Casey’s boyfriend), and Izzie (Casey’s friend and love interest) all have complex lives and multifaceted personalities, adding to the sprawling tapestry of character that is Atypical. While each character is affected by Sam’s spot on the spectrum, it does not consume them. Their lives are emotional, vulnerable, and most importantly, real. As I laid in my bed watching, I felt like this is a family that could have lived down the street from me. I saw pieces of my sister and myself in Sam and Casey and their relationship as siblings. I saw emotions that reminded me of my mom in Elsa, and of my dad in Doug. I found myself wishing for friends like Zahid and Paige, appreciating the kindness and courage exhibited by Evan, and relating Izzie’s defensive ferocity. Atypical creates relatable characters and plotlines to show that being on the spectrum is not as foreign and unrelatable as people often think it is. 

Atypical follows Sam through high school, the college process, and even his enrollment in college classes by season 3, showcasing his growth and development both in his own identity and in his relationships with other people. Although there are a number of great characters in Atypical, Sam (and Keir Gilchrist’s depiction of him) is my favorite. Sam is obsessed with Antarctica and often relates his own feelings back to random facts about Antarctic animals and explorers. When stressed, Sam even recites four kinds of penguins: Adelie, Chinstrap, Emperor, and Gentoo. I became so obsessed with Atypical that when I was anxious and nervous, I found myself mumbling “Adelie, Chinstrap, Emperor, Gentoo” over and over again. 

While some critics think Sam becomes too much of a punchline or is too stereotypical, I think that’s exactly the point. Too many people allow individuals on the spectrum to be seen as punchlines, rather than treating them like normal people who have the capacity to be funny, to love, and to be relatable. Too often labels create barriers between humans that become cemented with time, and the label of “autistic” has done the same thing. Common stereotypes of people with autism include: nerdy, asexual, unable to work, rude, and either high-functioning or not at all, with no in-between. While in some ways, Sam Gardner can be read as stereotypical, I think he’s just a person. My favorite moments of Sam are those where he relates tough life experiences to Antarctica, or where he makes a list of pros and cons to see if he loves his girlfriend. As a completely neurotypical person, I found moments like these relatable. We all can be blunt sometimes, we all can be unsure, and I think we all are looking for rules in life, just in different ways than Sam. If any other character was the punchline of a show, audiences would find it normal. Since Sam is introduced as someone on the spectrum however, every moment of his that is funny is tied back to his condition, and thus is seen as problematic by some. While this could be true, I think, especially as the show develops into its second and third seasons, Sam is funny, caring, and deeply empathetic. Going into season 2, Robia Rashid also consulted with David Finch, as well as hiring actors/actresses who are actually on the spectrum to be a part of Sam’s new group therapy. Regardless of his stereotypical aspects, Sam is no Sheldon Cooper. He’s real, and I find him to be extremely relatable, a quality that people on the spectrum are almost never described or portrayed as. 

While Sam is my favorite part of Atypical, the main reason for that is because of his relationships with Zahid and Paige. Some of the most genuine moments for both Sam and the show come from his interactions with Zahid and Paige and the development of each relationship. Zahid is Sam’s coworker, and their friendship starts with Zahid giving Sam advice on girls. As the two get closer, Zahid helps Sam pick out new clothes, practice sleeping somewhere that is not his house, and even helps Sam deal with an intolerant police officer. The two have a falling out when Zahid becomes obsessed with his new girlfriend, so much so that Sam misses his first college exam to make sure Zahid does not give up on his dream of nursing school. Sam says he loves Zahid because their friendship exists beyond his place on the spectrum, and as a viewer, I saw that to be true. The two are hilarious together and show a real bond. Sam and Paige start out as a slow-burn couple, where Paige comes off annoying and Sam is still in love with Julia, his therapist. However, as time goes on Sam tells Paige he loves her and makes huge displays of affection for her. Paige and Zahid both seem like they would be the polar opposites of Sam, yet they become the people who care the most for Sam, and vice versa. I find Sam’s relationships outside of his family to be the most heartwarming part of Atypical.

Despite my beliefs on Sam as a character, I do recognize the limitations of Sam being played by Keir Gilchrist, who is not on the spectrum. It brings up the timeless debate of who can portray who in film and television. Robia Rashid, the creator of Atypical, also had no outside consultation from actual individuals on the spectrum when writing the script for season one. So the question becomes, is this okay? I think yes, and while I am not the population being mis/underrepresented, I think sometimes small steps are important. Yes, I think it would be ideal if Atypical could have had a lead actor who is on the spectrum, or at least had a group of people on the spectrum help check out the script beforehand. However, when I try and think of portrayals of autistic individuals prior to Atypical, the only real figure that comes to mind is Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory, which is problematic in itself. Atypical inspires deep empathy, unconditional love, witty humor, and the power of accepting others for who they truly are. I think Atypical is making strides for people on the spectrum that not many other shows and movies are making, and while small and imperfect, that is important. At the end of the day, I love Atypical and think it can teach people a lot about what it means to truly love someone, and truly be there for people. Atypical is relatable, truthful, vulnerable, honest, and really heart-warming and funny. I highly recommend giving it a view (or a full-on binge) on Netflix. 

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