How many facts about penguins do you know? Before I started watching the Netflix TV show Atypical, all I knew was that male penguins sit on baby eggs and that some like to tap dance — my primary source of information was Happy Feet.
In Atypical, Sam Gardner, played by Keir Gilchrist, is a high-functioning teenager with autism with a love for all facts Antarctic, so much so that whenever he feels overwhelmed, he recites a mantra of four penguin species: “Adélie, Chinstrap, Emperor, Gentoo.” Antarctic animal facts become a useful point of comparison for him as he enters completely unfamiliar terrain: the dating world.
His burgeoning independence causes instant panic for his mother, Elsa, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who struggles to cope with the changing family dynamic and blames Sam’s therapist for leading him into dangerous territory. As Sam’s crush is equal parts unattainable and unavailable, he sets out to find a “practice girlfriend;” his attempts to woo her are made worse by terrible advice from his best friend and self-proclaimed womanizer, Zahid, who is just as clueless about dating.
Atypical compensates for a premise that may appear shallow with an execution that is anything but. Storylines are explored with a sensitive touch that extends to the neurotypical characters. It is impossible not to feel empathy for Elsa in the choices she makes throughout the first season, considering she is finally dealing with the repercussions of putting herself last for the past 18 years. Sam’s father, Doug, played by Michael Rapaport, is navigating his own feelings of guilt and shame as he struggles to connect with his son and be as involved in his life as Elsa. Brigette Lundy-Paine’s portrayal of Casey, Sam’s sister, perfectly balances teenage angst and a fierce protectiveness of her older brother to create a loyal, lovable character.
The notable lack of actors with autism in the first season is improved in the following two seasons, which are uncoincidentally more charming and genuine. As I do not have autism and do not have any close friends or family members with autism, I cannot speak to the accuracy of Atypical’s depiction of the condition. That being said, the show has taught me about autism in a way that does not feel didactic.
I would not recommend it purely for its educational value, though it does bring the thought-process of a person with autism to life on the screen. An Indian-American character who is the exact opposite of every possible stereotype, as well as a young lesbian couple, are just a few other examples of characters in the show who are underrepresented in the media and are incorporated in Atypical in a way that feels like a natural extension of the story.
With three seasons on Netflix, Atypical is the perfect show to binge watch this weekend if you are looking for a refreshing break from re-watching Friends and The Office on loop. Come for a heartwarming coming-of-age tale; stay for Sam’s deadpan wit, his pet turtle, and a dynamic supporting cast who portray their struggles to better themselves to devastatingly realistic effect.