Published On: Sat, Aug 12th, 2017

Netflix’s ‘Atypical’ sacrifices storytelling for a breakout performance

Netflix has emerged as the place for daring, unconventional storytelling the perfect platform for Atypical, a family comedy about an autistic teen. And while its star gives a breakout performance, everyone around him struggles to keep up.

Atypical is the story of Sam (Keir Gilchrist), an autistic high school senior who decides try dating. His decision shocks his overprotective mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), overwhelmed father (Michael Rapaport), and tough sister (Brigette Lundy-Paine). Once the idea takes root, he starts doing his research seeking advice, reading books to empirically approach the volatile teen dating scene.

Gilchrist auditioned some five or six times for Atypical and met with writer/creator Robia Rashid for several hours during that process. He prepared for his role extensively including by reading Journal of Best Practices, which appears in the show.

"For whatever reason I dont think it was purposeful or anything I just happen to have a lot of friends with siblings or friends growing up or even neighbors ... [who] were on the spectrum," Gilchrist said in a phone interview. "I just kind of happened to have a little extra experience with, which definitely helped with preparing for the role and even auditioning. I just kind of came to the table with a little more personal experience."

Julias suggestion that Sam try dating just feels like something to keep her patient busy.

"I dont pretend to be the only one who created Sam," he added. "I really had a lot of help from a lot of people too, even members of the crew. There are multiple members of the crew who have kids that are on the spectrum and we'd actually use them very often as a sounding board for if what we were doing felt right."

Gilchrist is, for all intents and purposes, the best part of the show. He happens to be better than many parts of it; the writing and production puts so much thought into carefully crafting this autistic character that the people around him arent always fully formed.

It was always a possibility that Atypical would be problematic in its depiction of autism, but the problems arise from its failure to treat other characters and topics with sensitivity. Sam's therapist Julia (Amy Okuda) is particularly hard to watch because she is so consistently inappropriate. At one point, she asks Sam to pretend she's a girl he's trying to ask out; she discusses her own relationship problems with a patient, and is blatantly more interested in his dating life than any other part of his mental and emotional wellbeing.

Keir Gilchrist and Brigette Lundy-Paine

Image: netflix

The only character with any real dimension besides Sam is his sister Casey, played with fierce sincerity by Brigette Lundy-Paine. Casey is the one who calls every other character out on their ridiculous behavior, who puts protecting Sam above everything else yet still manages to grow in her own character arc (she can have it all!).

Perhaps the most excruciating arc is Sam's mother, who comes off from Episode 1 as a helicopter mom having a rebellious phase, and it lacks subtlety. She's like this from the very beginning; overtly selfish, to the point where any concerned-mom actions feel performative. It lends the character complexity, but kills empathy. This isnt to say that likability is something you cash in when you want to be horrible but on TV that is often the case.

Atypical isnt the first mainstream show with a prominent autistic character. For six seasons NBCs Parenthood had a regular character dealing with Aspergers (now classified as "high-functioning" autism much like Sams on Atypical). In Season 6, Max decides to date not with any prompting from the adults in his life, but of his own volition. By comparison, Julias suggestion that Sam try dating just feels like something to keep her patient busy. Max's parents also helped dissuade him when the girl he likes isn't interested, and the meltdown he has at school is a rigorous and realistic portrayal of this trying chapter in adolescence.

There's a lot forced conversation about Sam's autism in Atypical. Multiple people hit him with a grating "What's wrong with you?" Teens are cruel, but these ones feel like caricatures; the most realistic of these uncomfortable encounters is a girl who asks bullies to lay off Sam because he's "not all there."

Overall, many of the conflicts and situations that arise on Atypical are tackled only at a surface level. Perhaps the show could do more with a second season but after Season 1, you may not want that.

Atypical is now streaming on Netflix.

Read more: http://mashable.com/2017/08/11/atypical-netflix/

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Netflix’s ‘Atypical’ sacrifices storytelling for a breakout performance