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Eighteen Candles: My Review of Atypical

Author: Merrick Egber (September 19th, 2017) An attempt at a spoiler-free review.

You may remember me saying that the only autistic representation in the media that I knowingly indulged in was “Rain Man”, sometimes I feel like it is way too personal to go out of my way to watch. This late summer, early fall season transition has two shows (“Atypical” from Netflix, and “The Good Doctor” from ABC), and a movie (“A Boy Called Po”), that are all supposed to represent some form of autism. With heavy heart, I decided to indulge in the eight episodes of the first Season of “Atypical”.

“Atypical” seems like your average teenage melodrama, with the upcoming verge of adulthood, questions about love, dating, and having to deal with the responsibilities made to yourself, and responsibilities made to your friends. But, the difference is that one of the characters having to deal with it, Sam Gardner (Kir Gilchrist, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”) is a high-functioning autistic person who spends the whole Season pondering about dating and love once his therapist, Julia (Amy Okuda), gives him the go ahead to do so. Rounding out the rest of the cast are: Doug Gardner (Michael Rapaport), who plays Sam’s father, an EMT worker who hasn’t had an easy time connecting with his son, Elsa Gardner (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a hairdresser who feels that her connection to her family is slipping away, Casey Gardner (Brigette Lundy-Paine) a track star and Sam’s younger sister who functions as a pillar of support, Zahid (Nik Dodani) who is Sam’s best friend, and special mention to Anthony Jacques who plays Christopher, who not only is the only other character with autism, but is the only actor with autism in the cast.

What emerges from the show, is a very realistic portrayal of the subject. Sam talks to his therapist throughout the show to explain what he is going through, and there are also standard tricks, like obnoxious repetition to give you a look inside Sam’s head. It also is interesting in that the tension isn’t about a genius suffering from social trouble, but of an emotionally vulnerable, fragile individual, whose intensified senses are helpless in the face of unfamiliar pain. He is very bright, yet he’d rather be in Antarctica, his favorite place, with the animals including penguins then to deal with a human environment that feels so alien to him. It makes the comfortable parts of the show feel more genuine, and almost escapist.

I could relate to Sam’s character. His impulsiveness, the lack of autistic friends, having tunnel vision, sensitive about his possessions, and emotionally intense, were my experiences in high school. There was one part that I couldn’t relate to him, and I think that that is one of my criticisms of the series. His relationship with Zahid is paper-thin. By the time he turned 18, he should’ve had a friend, or group of friends, who were interested in his interests or who admired his interest in Antarctica and ornithology. Much of Sam and Zahid’s chemistry were about “girlfriends”, which while a major part of the show, never clues the viewer into what Zahid sees in Sam’s distinctiveness. He seems friendly, and likes engaging with Sam, but outside of going to the same school and working at the same store, there is little reason to think that they are actually best friends, even if the final episode tries to make the case.

Another criticism is related to the genetic nature of autism. It is hard to see through the show’s bleakness, because of how tortured Sam is. The fact that it feels like Antarctica throughout the whole season helped me, a little bit, due to my outlook.  But it also should relay the feeling that Sam is not alone. It wouldn’t surprise me if autism can be passed down from parent to son or daughter. I would’ve liked an uncle or somebody from Sam’s family who could be seen as the biological ancestor for Sam’s condition. At least I would like to see greater involvement with the autistic community for Season 2, perhaps a band, like the Autistix ( could perform for the high school, maybe even school prom. For another future interest: I would like to see Sam explore his interest in penguins, for example, to a greater extent that may determine his future in the series.

I was grateful in seeing the show. I think that it was a good treat to see a realistic depiction of autism, which also depends how open a person is to understand it. I’ve heard the show has been criticized by certain autistic critics who see it as misrepresenting those with autism, and who also see the show as having very little to do with the community. I don’t fully agree with the first claim. Sam is a nuanced individual dealing with his own unique thought and language processes which is far from being a caricature. He doesn’t talk about his special interest as  “look I’m a genius”, but rather how he comprehends the world around him, and perhaps, how he self-adapts to each situation presented to him. The second claim is more feasible, even with a consultant and Anthony Jacques, but that is why you have future installments. Plus, it shouldn’t be about a guy with 10 autistic co-stars, but rather the nature of a world as reactant to someone as reactive as Sam is. I really enjoyed the show, and I recommend it to anyone with a Netflix subscription