Atypical: Netflix's comedy-drama focuses on the trials of raising an autistic teen
REVIEW: Netflix's engrossing but tonally jerky comedy-drama Atypical takes a bit of getting used to.
Following a family focused on a teenage son who is on the autism spectrum, it can be keenly poignant one minute, and the next so silly and contrived that it feels like a particularly uninspired network sitcom.
But Atypical does have an immediate emotional impact, and at least some of the disjunct comes from the fact that autistic high-school senior Sam (Keir Gilchrist) just can't grasp certain basics of human interaction.
"I'm a weirdo. That's what everyone says," he tells his therapist, compulsively flicking a rubber band as he begins laying out an eloquent description of his isolation.
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And it's easy to see that he isisolated despite being surrounded by a loving family – on the bus home he attracts stares by sitting oddly so that his back doesn't touch the seat, and he startles the other passengers by laughing out loud at the thought that certain Antarctic fish produce their own natural antifreeze.
Sam's autism and the challenges he faces heading into adulthood are the constant preoccupation of his parents, Elsa and Doug (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michael Rapaport), and his frustrated, but fiercely protective sister, Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine).
The series, created by Robia Rashid (The Goldbergs, How I Met Your Mother), is efficient and affecting in showing how Sam's autism has affected his parents – Elsa is hypervigilant, exhausted and fearful about the future, Doug carries shame and sorrow for his inability to connect with Sam, and their marriage is close to flat-lining. (Casey, for her part, seems strikingly well adjusted for a teenage girl who has had to take a back seat for her whole life).
And the series isn't afraid to tackle tough topics early – Sam's determination to get a girlfriend leads him into an online morass of inappropriate advice from misogynistic pick-up artists, yet the opportunity for sex arrives all too quickly.
Leigh and Rapaport are as good as you'd expect, while Lundy-Paine is impressive in the way that she imbues Casey with a likeable spirit.
But it's Gilchrist who delivers the most remarkable performance, conveying all Sam's earnestness, frustration and hurt with a bare minimum of facial expression, and giving him a physicality that's suitably awkward but not obtrusively so. So-so comic relief is provided by Sam's upbeat work pal, Zahid (Nik Dodani) and his slow-on-the-uptake therapist, Julia (Amy Okuda).
Well worth a look.
Atypical begins streaming on Netflix from August 11.