“Zahid, a nerdy South Asian friend obsessed with girls, boobs, and sex, is such a one-note caricature that it all feels a bit 1980s and ass-backwards, mostly.”
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creators: Robia Rashid 👩🏽🇺🇸
Writers: Jen Regan 👩🏼🇺🇸 (7 eps), Ava Tramer 👩🏼🇺🇸 (7 eps), Robia Rashid 👩🏽🇺🇸 (4 eps), Dennis Saldua 👨🏽🇺🇸 (4 eps), and various (2 ♂, 1 ♀, all white)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Atypical feels a little unsure of what it wants to be. Is it a comedy? Drama? Documentary? It winds up being a little of each, but not blended seamlessly. If you take it for what it is though, the product is still enjoyable.
In fact, I binge watched this show in just a few days. Keir Gilchrist does a stand-out job as Sam Gardner, a teenager with high-functioning autism. Brigette Lundy-Paine is charming and believable as his sister, Casey Gardner. However, some other characters feel hammered in; their mother, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) feels ill cast and the Sam’s therapist, Julia (Amy Okuda) suffers from banal writing.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
By sheer numbers there are plenty of women to go around: Elsa, Casey, Julia, and Sam’s girlfriend Paige (Jenna Boyd) all play significant roles. By complexity, the women of Atypical are as rounded and complete as their male counterparts. But when overall depth is pretty flat, that lowers the Gender score a tiny bit.
I’m more unimpressed by the decision to make Sam’s friend, Zahid (Nik Dodani), a nerdy lothario. For some reason, the juvenile sexualization of women is his primary characterization. While not particularly offensive, it comes off as an ineffective grab for laughs and feels super out of place. Sure, teenage boys are immature. They think about boobs and sex and make a lot of dick jokes. (Hell, I’m a 32 year old woman and I still make a lot of dick jokes.) But Zahid is such a one-note caricature that it all feels a bit 1980s and ass-backwards, mostly.
Props for a concerted effort to include people of color. Atypical stacks its support cast with black, Asian, and Hispanic characters admirably. But as evidenced by Zahid’s character, who is South Asian, they lack even more complexity than the already-predictable main characters. A quick rundown:
- Julia, Sam’s therapist, is Japanese-American. She is the most developed of the non-white characters and the show even attempts to write her a story arc. Unfortunately, it delves into trodden territory: a surprise pregnancy, wanting her longtime boyfriend to propose to her, dealing poorly with a breakup...ugh. If Atypical is renewed, I hope the writers can find a better way to leverage this character to her full potential instead of sticking her into rote storylines that revolve around men. Personally I’m more interested in her background of autism in the family, as well as what it’s like to work in the profession and be surrounded by all kinds of patients (and their parents).
- Nick (Raúl Castillo), the hunky lover of Elsa, is Mexican-American. Positive portrayal but flat.
- Same goes for Sharice (Christina Offley), Casey’s best friend who is black.
- And same goes for Casey’s other school acquaintances: Coach Briggs (Kevin Daniels) who is black, Tanya (Michelle Farrah Huang) who is East Asian, and JJ (Britney Ortiz) who looks mixed-race. This POC entourage is well-intentioned, but it gives off Rough Night optics of a white woman leading a group of Other girls who never seem to get the spotlight themselves.
No overt representation of LGBTQ characters across 10 episodes.
I’m adding a point for context. A lot of the characters in Atypical are high-schoolers—young enough that some queer characters may not be “out” yet. In addition, 10 episodes is not a ton of material and the cast is still small enough that the lack of LGBTQ characters is believable, taking into consideration the fact that only 3.8% of adults self-reported as LGBTQ in 2015.
Bonus for Disability: +0.50
Atypical is about a teenage boy with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder. Since I don’t have personal experience with ASD, I’ll defer to other writers who do.
The response from the community seems to be mixed. Darcel Rockett of Chicago Tribune lauds the exploration of a family collectively dealing with autism. Leslie Felperin agrees on The Guardian that while an imperfect show, Atypical does move the needle forward.
Meanwhile, others find the depiction of ASD offensive. Noah Berlatsky points out the reliance on gender roles, noting that “Sam’s autism makes him hyper-male” in his difficulty with reading emotional cues. Multiple reviewers take issue with the facts that 1) Sam is played by a neurotypical actor, 2) his autism is used as a source of comedy in several scenes, and 3) the show focuses on the stock character of a white, heterosexual, high-functioning male with autism rather than exploring female, queer, or POC individuals who also deal with ASD.
Regardless of differing opinions, the fact that we are even having this discussion about a show that has clearly taken pains to research and serve the community as best they can is enough to warrant extra points.
Mediaversity Grade: C+ 3.56/5
An enjoyable show made with the best of intentions, Atypical is perfectly watchable and tries its best to portray autism in a nuanced and socially beneficial way. Whether or not they succeed seems open to interpretation, but what reviewers seem to agree on (myself included) is that traditional pitfalls get in the way. The writing is simplistic and the humor never quite sits comfortably alongside its primary function as a family drama.
Still, I found it effortless to watch. If you’re curious about autism or wouldn’t mind an accessible teenage drama, Atypical will not lead you astray.