What Netflix comedy Atypical gets right and wrong about autism

Back in the mists of 2009, in the opening scene of the film Bruno, the fashion-obsessed Austrian-accented title character, created and played by Sacha Baron Cohen, and his decorative female colleague posit that autism was “so cool at ze moment” because “it’s funny”. Therefore, it falls into the “in” column on Bruno’s In and Out list (unlike poor chlamydia, which was “out”).

The gag seemed a little audaciously off-colour at the time, although pretty tame in the context of a movie that also features a subplot where Bruno tries to adopt an African American baby he names OJ. (Also, the autism joke may have been a semi-affectionate shout-out to Sacha’s first cousin Simon Baron-Cohen, a renowned developmental scientist who studies the condition.) But what’s interesting looking back at this early, casual joke is that it turns out to be a bit prophetic: today in 2017, autism is indeed very much “in”, part of the international conversation about identity in a way it’s never been before. Moreover, it also now permissible to see it as funny as well as a condition that can make things difficult and challenging, not just for those who have it but also those close to those on the autism spectrum.

Characters on the autistic spectrum crop up regularly now in films and TV, often as comic relief, in sitcoms such as The Big Bang Theory and Community or recent films such as Power Rangers and, if beings from other planets count, Guardians of the Galaxy (Drax, who cannot understand metaphors and takes every utterance literally, is interpreted by many as a quasi-autistic character). There’s something interesting about genre going on here because until now, on average (there are exceptions, of course) when a show or film has featured a lead character on the spectrum, the tone has tended to be darker, veering more toward drama rather than comedy (see maudlin BBC series The A Word, dramatic film X+Y, action thriller The Accountant and, judging by early reports, the upcoming medical drama The Good Doctor). In some ways, the most rounded portrait of autism on television at the moment is Julia on the American children’s show and national institution Sesame Street, a little girl with sensory issues and problems understanding the laws of social interaction, but who is also full of joy, song and creativity.

The makers of the new Netflix series Atypical, including creator Robia Rashid (who was also involved in The Goldbergs), clearly want to help the world understand what it’s like for those on the autistic spectrum, and to deliver that lesson with comedy and warmth. Deeply well-meant and probably incredibly illuminating for those who don’t know much about the condition, the show is unequivocally a ‘Good Thing’ in and of itself, and it’s hard not to applaud both the intention and the effort. That’s me speaking as the mother of a pre-pubescent boy on the autistic spectrum. As a critic of films and sometimes TV, I wish I could applaud Atypical’s result more.

The show’s central character is Sam, an 18-year-old American high school student who longs to have a sexual-romantic (in that order) relationship with a female, a quest that acts as the show’s main plot engine. Often it feels like Atypical’s writers have combed through the literature – the many academic accounts, memoirs and so on – and extracted, intensified and amplified all the most obvious autistic behaviours, particularly those that would have been described as signs of Asperger syndrome before that latter diagnosis was brought in under the autism umbrella by the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

So Sam is a basically a human whiteboard illustrating the triad of impairments. He talks in a somewhat rat-a-tat monotone voice (demonstrating atypical verbal development), can’t understand social cues and takes everything very literally (social and emotional difficulties), and has obsessions (imaginative restriction or repetitive behaviour), which manifests in his case as an all-consuming interest in Antarctica and the Arctic and all the fauna of those environments, especially penguins.

At one point in the eight-episode arc that comprises the first season, Sam contemplates dating Paige (Jenna Boyd), a schoolmate who actually seems to like him for all the right reasons, even though Sam is more attracted to his therapist, Julia (Amy Okuda). In the spirit of rationalism, Sam makes up a pro-and-con list enumerating Paige’s good and weak points (a device you just know is going to go wrong, even if you hadn’t seen it before elsewhere); it’s tempting to draw up a similar spreadsheet for the show itself.

Pro: Much of the show’s dialogue glides in the frictionless way American sitcoms so often do, the funny bits well turned and nimbly delivered by the cast. Gilchrist, with his Buster Keaton deadpan expression (he would also be great casting for a Jared Kushner biopic someday), excels particularly at landing Sam’s unique blend of melancholy and geekiness with lines such as: “I wish I had a time machine and go back to the past and never have asked her out in the first place [half-beat pause] – and also maybe visit the Middle Ages. Because jousting.”

Con: There’s tons of clunky exposition and autism 101 lectures shoehorned in, especially among characters who would surely know this stuff by now. So, for example, while it is both canny and wince-inducing the way the show skewers the “people-first language” of disability (ie “person with autism” is preferred to “autistic person”) in a scene where Sam’s dad, Doug (Michael Rapaport), is told off by a pious mother at a support group for parents of kids on the spectrum, surely he would know all that by now?

Pro: There’s some subtlety and insight in the way it suggests that Sam’s overprotective mother, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), may be more than a bit on the spectrum herself judging by the way she times herself doing household chores and makes massive monthly planner with colour-coded Post-It notes to track everyone in the family’s activities, goals and plans. There is indeed strong evidence that autism is genetic.

Con: As much as it pains me to say this, because I really like Leigh as an actor, she feels painfully miscast here in other ways. I’d buy her as someone on the spectrum, sure, but not as a fussy hairdresser who values her children’s friends based on how pretty they are, which is how the character is written. Also, nearly all the teenage characters look like they are in their twenties, not their teens.

Pro: Despite the fact Brigette Lundy-Paine doesn’t look anything like a high school sophomore (see above), she’s the best thing in the show as Sam’s abrasive but protective younger sister Casey, a sibling torn between irritation with her embarrassing brother and a righteous need to protect him and anyone else who gets bullied. One minute she’s laughing at his dress sense or lack thereof, and the next she’s in a furious, justifiable sulk because once again her parents were so much more preoccupied with Sam and their own problems that no one saw her break a record on the track in a race. Given that the complex relationships between people on the spectrum and their siblings have historically been under-explored in film and TV (apart from the truly excellent Australian drama The Black Balloon), the show could have centered on Casey instead of Sam, although some advocates might have been understandably not been pleased with that.

Con: As laudable as it may be to come across a show that’s gone to such trouble to do its homework about the condition it depicts, even to the extent that it avoids calling it a disorder at all, and all the pains it takes to give the character with autism agency, humanity and multiple dimensions, some might still wonder why nearly all characters with autism in film have to be, like Sam, lovable, good-looking, funny ha-ha as well as funny peculiar and, above all, high functioning.

I get it that it may be more of a challenge to write stories involving characters who might be non-verbal, but does that kind of autism have to be so invisible? Sam in a sense is a kind of poster-child version of autism, perhaps occasionally rude (sometimes extremely rude) because he doesn’t know how to behave. But by the time we meet him in the story’s present tense, all his most challenging behaviour is in the past when he was younger, except for a scene where, under intense stress, Sam has a freak-out on a bus and self-harms.

On balance, my husband and I, after watching so many movies about autism and with characters on the spectrum over the past few years, found there were more cons to nitpick in Atypical than pros to celebrate. That said, it could be worse. According to the early publicity, The Good Doctor, that previously mentioned medical drama coming up this autumn, will be about a surgeon with autism who also has savant skills. Some cliches never die.

Link to original article: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/aug/14/atypical-netflix-autism-spectrum-depiction-cliches


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