The lead of Netflix’s Atypical isn’t normal. But neither is anyone else. And the series would really like you to know that.
The new series (streaming Friday, ** ½ out of four), created by Robia Rashid (The Goldbergs), follows Sam (Keir Gilchrist), a teenage boy with autism, coming of age and dealing with the same issues as his peers: fears about dating and growing up. His mother Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has trouble stepping back and letting Sam take more control of his life, while his father Doug (Michael Rapaport) finds new ways to connect to his son. His sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) tries to carve out her own life apart from the family’s focus on Sam.
Atypical is at its strongest when it focuses on Sam and his unique view of the world. Gilchrist is strong and appealing in the role, offering voiceover narration that explains Sam’s actions and words, leading the viewer to take his point of view when the rest of the world only sees its own. At one point, Sam asks a girl who gave him a Valentine in elementary school (which he saved) on a date. She can’t figure out why he’s so persistent, but we know it’s because she was once kind and expressed an interest.
As strong as the Sam-focused story is, the series has trouble in the first few episodes developing the storylines of his family members.
Elsa starts the series on a self-destructive path because Sam has begun to outgrow her influence, which makes sense on the surface, but the series hasn’t provided enough backstory to make it seem interesting. Doug is a clueless husband, with not much dimension to him. Casey’s rebellious and protective nature isn’t fully fleshed out right away, so when she punches a classmate in defense of a bullied peer, it’s more random than charming.
Despite Leigh’s appeal, Elsa — who’s the most knowledgeable about autism and has done the most to help Sam — is unlikable, while her husband, who is mostly just winging it, is a more heroic and sympathetic figure. His ignorance is not presented as a parenting weakness but rather as an endearing quirk. When he gets frustrated by what he sees as “PC” language at a support group, we’re meant to see them as unreasonable for correcting him. But if that language helps kids and parents, why shouldn’t Doug learn it?
The other main problem with Atypical is its schmaltzy tone, which becomes far too saccharine after multiple episodes. The series has trouble just letting the story and characters stand on their own, and is focused on its “importance” too often. The moral of the story, that nobody is “normal,” is spoken out loud in moments that make it feel like an afterschool special.
Atypical presents a point of view and a lead character that are, well, atypical in the TV landscape. But its sweetness and predictability make it a little too typical to be great.