I have now completed watching all eight episodes of the first season (it ended on a cliff hanger so they’re clearly angling for a second) of the Netflix series Atypical.
It goes without saying that this post will include spoilers and quite frankly you’re welcome. Now you don’t have to watch it.
The show is in a word terrible. The autistic character Sam has no perceivable personality and is largely just a collection of autism diagnostic criteria and stereotypes. His only driving factor is to get a girlfriend.
Pretty much all of the characters are irredeemably awful.
Elsa, the mother is the archetypal overbearing autism mom. She is controlling to the point of actually damaging Sam’s ability to function in the world. The show doesn’t actually really concretely address the extent of the harm. She is attention seeking and presents herself as a martyr on the altar of autism. Every horrible thing she does is blamed on Sam, from ignoring her other child to having an affair.
Doug, the father starts out promising but turns out to be awful. initially, he just seems to be cluelessly but genuinely trying to connect with his son. It is later revealed that after Sam was diagnosed he left the family for eight months because he couldn’t deal. He spends the series which takes place well over a decade later enabling Sam’s creepy misogynistic behaviour under the excuse of trying to make up for leaving. He does have some good lines challenging some autism moms person first rhetoric but in the context of everything else he’s still awful.
Casey, Sam’s younger sister is the only genuinely likeable person in the show. She treats him like a human being, though she uses him as a prop to further her own goals by referencing him in her interview to get into prep school. This is actually pretty realistic and in a better show might have been a genuine commentary on how even loving accepting family members can be ableist. Unfortunately, Atypical is not that show. Claire is the most well rounded and complex character in the show.
Evan, Casey’s boyfriend is a nice generic good looking boyfriend. Pretty much sums him up. They hint at a difficult home life but it’s basically a failed attempt at making him not a generic boyfriend character and as an excuse for why he’s a convenient human lie detector.
Julia Sasaki, Sam’s therapist, doesn’t know how to be a therapist. She’s ostensibly supposed to be helping him with life skills but can’t even set up clear boundaries. The first indication that Sam is creepy and doesn’t know how to talk to women is when he points out her bra strap is showing. She’s embarrassed but doesn’t use the opportunity to tell him that this might be an inappropriate behaviour. This foreshadows the rest of the show. Where Sam invariably gives someone a lot of warning that he might do something shitty and that person does nothing to stop it. No one explains anything to him in accessible terms.
Zahid, is Sam’s only friend and coworker. On the one hand, Zahid is truly accepting of Sam which is great. If only that wasn’t entirely undercut by his cartoonish level of misogyny and the fact that he eggs on an facilitates Sam’s being a creepy piece of shit.
Paige, Sam’s (ex)girlfriend, while Sam does treat her abysmally which is inexcusable, Paige also takes advantage of him and creates a controlling relationship where she defines all aspects of the relationship. She won’t let him talk about the things that interest him and in fact, implements a punitive system to limit his ability to steer the conversation.
For some reason, Netflix has classes all of this as a dramedy. The thing is it actually has the basic structure of what could have been a pretty good gritty drama. The show presents Sam and his actions as inherent and unavoidable because he is autistic.And sure there are autistic men who display the same degree of entitlement and sexism. The thing is that this is learned behaviour. So I have tried to reimagine Atypical as if it actually dealt accurately and honestly with what is going on.
The show would need more autistic characters to act as counterpoints to Sam. This could be achieved by having autistic activists who engage with Elsa at one of her autism walks. They would challenge her and of course, she would inevitably utter the all to common phrase “you can’t speak for my child”. Elsa would double down on her awful behaviour which would be reinforced by the uncritical support of her autism mom’s support group.
The inclusion of other autistic characters would help clear up the issue around the group’s use of language. Showing autistic people unapologetically identifying as autistic and owning their identities would throw Sam’s harsh reality into sharp relief.
Sam would spend more time second guessing everything he says because his mother’s constant control would have destroyed his self-esteem. The show would make it clear that he has no escape at home from the bullying he experiences at school because home is just a different kind of abuse.
It’s hard to figure out what to do with Zahid because in Netflix’s version he is the only person who genuinely accepts Sam. Realistically though his blatant sexism is likely what would trigger Sam to conclude that a girlfriend would fix all his problems. I hate getting rid of the accepting force but realistically the contradictions of the character don’t work well.
More realistically, after finding no acceptance at school or home Sam would be ripe for coercion and abuse from someone who presents a veneer of acceptance. Someone who thinks it’s funny to put Sam into uncomfortable situations with women. Not someone who genuinely thinks they’re helping.
Sam’s first attempt at a sexual encounter (which ends in him hitting the woman he’s with) might at least flirt with actual consequences. Maybe She calls the cops and they send an ambulance which is conveniently staffed by Sam’s EMT dad who talks her out of pressing charges.
This would at least more concretely deal with explaining why Sam has built up this idea that his words and actions have no meaningful consequences beyond how they make him feel.
Clear parallels would be drawn between Elsa and Paige and show that Sam is essentially exchanging one controlling relationship for another.
Julia Sasaki would be as ineffective and there would likely be more direct controntations between her and Elsa. the show might actually show how therapists and medical professionals buy into stereotypes of disability and how this invariably hurts their patients.
Paige would still plan the silent dance but she’d likely call the media and be publically celebrated for her altruism.
Casey wouldn’t change much but a better show would offer more context about her. Show how she learned that it was okay to use her brother as a prop. Interrogate why the prep school interviewer not only let her get away with it but bought into it completely.
That is what would make Atypical more real. Really, however, a better show would humanize autistic ppl and not turn us into victims. A better show would move away from the autistic white boy norm. An actually affirming autistic love story might include finding a partner who is able to communicate more clearly. This might allow for a more realistic portrayal of romantic and sexual exploration.
What about instead of a first failed sexual experience that ends in violence. Sam still gets overwhelmed but that’s okay. What if instead of ending the season with a hand job in an igloo. Sam has a partner who is willing to try different sexual activities so that they have a mutually enjoyable experience. What if a handjob is shown as a more comfortable introduction to sexual activity? What if that’s where he stays comfortable and that’s okay? What if he was in a relationship where he understood that women are people and so they used creativity to make sure that he is able to reciprocate for his partner?
What if his mother wasn’t sexually repressive?
What if he had autistic friends? If not in person then online.
What is an autistic love story was written by autistic people and a major company actually produced it?
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