By Rachit Raj
Atypical is a rare show that manages to pull multiple genres successfully, giving its audience emotional depth and a regular laugh as it explores some important themes. The show is a family drama masqueraded as a coming-of-age story (or vice versa), championing both the genres over a three-season journey thus far.
It begins quite decidedly as a coming-of-age story of Samuel Gardner (Keir Gilchrist) an eighteen-year-old boy on the spectrum. But quite quickly the show starts to explore itself as a family drama where the parents, Dough (Michael Rapaport), Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and his sixteen-year-old sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) along with his best-friend Zahid (Nik Dodani), his therapist Julia (Amy Okuda) and girlfriend Paige (Jenna Boyd) form a story that is as much about the Gardner family as it is about individuals exploring themselves under the larger concept of community.
While the show is about inclusivity by design, show-runner Robia Rashid has evolved the show across three seasons (fourth and final releasing tomorrow) to make it a lot more than the story of a person on the spectrum finding his place in a world of neurotypicals. Atypical is a modern-day “woke” drama, a sub-genre of shows that is led by another Netflix Original, Sex Education.
The beauty of these shows is the ease and nonchalance with which they achieve inclusivity, continuing to churn out interesting narratives, and characters without making a big hoot about the political density of its characters as individuals who evolve the show into something a lot more dynamic than the promised premise.
Amongst many such intricate moments, the friendship of Sam and Zahid stands out throughout the show. Zahid stands in the show not just as Sam’s mentor away from home – his best-friend – but also a powerful, multi-dimensional representation of a South East Asian teenager in an American show.
Both these characters are peripheral presences in an able-bodied, heterosexual, white-skin dominating society of United States of America. And as the show grows, you realize just how vulnerable and uncomfortable they are with where they find themselves. Sam, a person with autism, is quite honest about feeling alienated through his interactions with other characters and his voice-overs that give us a fascinating insight into his mind.
Zahid, however, is a young man with a seemingly impenetrable defense mechanism. He is the “cool” guy who hides his insecurities by projecting himself as the confident, carefree man who finds his identity in tutoring Sam. The breakdown of his character in season 3 was one of the most fascinating accounts of immigrant identity crisis in recent years. He is always trying to fit-in, sometimes more desperately and vulnerably than Sam, but all under the garb of being a relaxed, resounding presence.
Julia is another interesting South Asian representation in a role that could have easily become a redundant white-woman therapist role. She is an exciting probe at exploring the complex relationship of pre-marital pregnancy with professional pressures. There is an unsaid pressure of making it in America as mid-twenties professional. She finds her solace, her home in her profession. Julia wants to be an epitome of the Great American Dream, but she is a visible “other” in the society. To its credit, the show never really speaks about her insecurity explicitly, but hints at it by showing her as a relentlessly passionate, apologetic, helpful character. She realizes that a professional hiccup could spell disaster for her towards the end of the first season, and the show’s decision to give her another role – that of a mother – is reflective of an attempt to ensure that Julia is more as an individual than a therapist.
For the longest of times Atypical was a show of heterosexual relationships. Casey and Evan (Graham Rogers), Elsa and Doug, Sam and Paige are all strong heterosexual presences. This is intelligently changed when a same-sex romance is introduced in the third season. Like in its portrayal of other racial issues, the show handles the romance between Casey and Izzie (Fivel Stewart) not only with a romantic fervor, but with its assigned insecurity.
If Zahid and Julia are struggling to fit-in, so is Izzie, a girl with a dysfunctional past who is discovering a sexual side to her that is opening new doors for her. With Izzie, the rarely-explored burden of being a sibling of a person with disability only gives her romance with Izzie a deeper significance of finding herself, along with her position as an athlete in the society, and a daughter in her family.
The elders in the show, Doug and Elsa, may come across as the most simplistic characters with the most clichéd arc. Elsa’s affair with a bartender, and Doug’s subsequent response feels robbed from a story with simplistic, repetitive representation of a middle-aged married couple. However, a tighter scrutiny of their journey sheds light on the real nature of their conflict. Doug and Elsa are essentially the image of an ideal middle-class American couple, pushed from the possibility of a perfect life to the reality of raising a child with autism.
Doug breaks first and later Elsa. Her infidelity, while unacceptable, comes from a very understandable insecurity. She is the one character who’s struggle with her self and the idea of family feels more self-manufactured. But that does not lessen its magnitude. Elsa has not learnt to be herself. Her identity of the self is so stringently tangled to Sam that the first signs of his freedom lead her into a spiral.
Atypical could have been another show on the horizon about a neurotypical actor playing a character with autism while other characters are white, vanilla support system or evil, disgruntled antagonists who exist in the plot to make things difficult for Sam. But after some criticism in the first season, the show included actors with autism in its narrative, and widened its racial, sexual, and communal nest. What truly makes it such a special show is not just the fact that it normalizes the life of Sam without needlessly ironing his struggles for family consumption (while remaining decidedly watchable as a family show), but that it that it gives us characters with deep-rooted identity issues (the one white character, Paige, is another terrific exploration of reality colliding with puppy-eyed idealism of teenage). These characters are alienated, and in search of their tribe, their kind – a family. And that is what they have become over the course of its run. A true embodiment of the modern American society, erasing the age-old whitening of America by engaging, entertaining storytelling and healthy, inclusive representation of characters rarely found in the forefront of an American drama without being caged in regressive stereotypes. In Atypical, all characters are humans, and that’s what makes all the difference.
[Read more of the author on his blog here]