Essays

‘Atypical’: Finding and Reclaiming Your Humanity

Spoilers ahead.

There’s a great scene in the final season of Atypical that provokes a burst of freedom in me every time. Casey (played by Bridgette Lundy-Paine) has just decided to quit track and drop out of Clayton. She was only in that high school in the first place because she runs super fast, but she quickly found the pressure of being the star athlete to be crushing her enjoyment of the sport. 

In the episode, she compares herself a lot to Mighty Moe, or Maureen Wilton, who broke the world record time for a marathon when she was 13. By 17, she quit. But in this scene, pushing against the pressures of school and her break-up with her girlfriend Izzie (played by Fivel Stewart), Casey finally regains the freedom she found in running.

And the way Casey summarizes her feelings about track was by comparing herself to Mighty Moe again, who returned to running when she was middle-aged: “That’s what I want, to run like Mighty Moe after she quit.” Casey wanted the passion and freedom of running, and she wasn’t going to let the expectations and desires of the world push her down once more. 

ATYPICAL (L to R) BRIGETTE LUNDY-PAINE as CASEY GARDNER in episode 407 of ATYPICAL Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

It really struck me as a standout scene in a show full of standout scenes, because Atypical wasn’t about people becoming “normal” as society defines it. It was about all these people in and out of the spectrum who accept their limitations without allowing it to limit them; instead, they push to change the society around them so that they can function better without masking or overriding who they really are. 

In a world where messages about self-acceptance skew closer to enabler rhetoric and self-righteousness, a show like this where care and empathy for others—even when they seem irredeemable—is the central message hits me in a very personal place. This is a show where the cast of characters refuse to be boxed into and viewed through the lenses of neurotypical, heteronormative narratives. It allows these characters to claim their humanity with kindness and dignity.

First, a primer: Atypical is a sitcom created by Robia Rashid that premiered on Netflix in 2017. It follows Sam Gardner (played by Keir Gilchrist), a teen on the spectrum, as he navigates through real-world challenges. Sam is set on his routines, obsessed with penguins and Antarctica, and his social skills need a lot of work. 

But he’s willing to learn new things to adapt, and he really comes through for the people he cares about, whether it’s his best friend Zahid (played by Nik Dodani) or his on-again, off-again girlfriend Paige (played by Jenna Boyd). 

The interesting thing about Atypical is how it shows how mundane and normal being on the spectrum can be. Decades of media have proliferated stereotypes about autism, but Atypical skewers right through that by showing Sam as a normal kid. He likes penguins and Antarctica and filters everything through that perspective, but he’s also obsessed with girls and sex and getting into college. His desires and the logic he utilizes to actualize them are understandable, and we are allowed an inside look into how Sam thinks, and the logical cues that he uses to get to the conclusions he has. By standing away from the stereotypes of autism, it enables a deeper exploration of the desires and anxieties that people on the spectrum go through. 

And while Sam is funny and absurd at times, the writers ensure that we are laughing with Sam, not at him. That distinct application of empathy for the subject allows for a more nuanced perspective of what people with autism go through, whether it’s discrimination or the r-slur or people triggering their anxieties in real-time. It’s stark and homey at the same time, and you really feel for what Sam goes through as a teenage boy.

ATYPICAL

As much as the focus has been on Sam, some attention is also given to the Gardner family as a whole: Casey yearns for her independence, and Elsa, their mom, (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is struggling with Sam’s renewed autonomy as well as her infidelity to her husband Doug (played by Michael Rapaport). 

It’s a really interesting family dynamic because none of these members are inherently unlikable. Seeing the mistakes that they make—which a typical sitcom would make unforgivable—and allowing us to see the messy process of making things right helps the show’s humanity shine through better. We’ve all been in situations like they have, and the show illustrates how flawed people can be, even with the best of intentions; and how those flaws shouldn’t undermine or define people (basically, not defining them at their worst). 

Those themes and ideas come through with Doug, for example. Doug left the family for eight months when Sam was first diagnosed; since then, he’s been working to make up for that mistake. He teaches his son about girls, he’s there when Sam needs help with manual labor, and is genuinely interested in his son’s life and helping him be more independent.

The show doesn’t condemn Doug for his previous actions, because the writers understand that he’s legitimately put in the work to try and make up for it. The show wants us to understand that we shouldn’t define people for how they acted at their worst, but instead give them the benefit of the doubt and allow them to show how much they care. 

On the other side of things, you can see a similarly nonjudgmental tone when we watch Doug and Elsa work through their marriage after her infidelity. Elsa learns to allow people to cope on their own, to not force the outcome you want like she’s been doing for Sam and the family for years. 

ATYPICAL

The process of atonement, of seeking forgiveness for your mistakes, doesn’t work when you impatiently bulldoze through the feelings—as Elsa learns herself, sometimes she has to be patient and allow people to process their emotions at their own pace.  

This obviously doesn’t apply to every relationship or dynamic—even the show admits that there are some things you just can’t atone for—but as long as the effort is there and it is sincere, then those mistakes shouldn’t define us as people.

Atypical’s characters are fleshed out and flawed in a way that doesn’t excuse their behavior but doesn’t condemn them as well. It’s because the show is trying to illustrate that in the end, the perfect life is nothing more than an illusion. Everybody has flaws and differences that diverge from the standards the world forces upon us. Just because the neurotypicals around Sam can live within that easier doesn’t mean they’re better or that Sam is lesser. 

Those standards that we live by, they’re just a false sense of security for the self. Sam doesn’t get defined by society’s standards; instead, he pushes away from it, forcing the box open so that bigger possibilities not yet considered can be called upon. 

ATYPICAL (L to R) BRIGETTE LUNDY-PAINE as CASEY GARDNER, NIK DODANI as ZAHID, and KEIR GILCHRIST as SAM GARDNER in episode 409 of ATYPICAL Cr. GREG GAYNE/NETFLIX © 2021

And Sam being allowed to define himself by his own standards enables compelling acts of kindness to happen for the people he cares about. In season 3, Sam had a falling-out with Zahid because he was dating Gretchen (played by Allie Rae Treharne), a person who lived a cavalier, emotionally shallow life. In spite of their falling out, when Sam learned that Zahid was planning on skipping his nursing exam to get married, he dropped everything he was doing to find Zahid and make sure that he got to his exam on time. For Sam, their friendship and bond are always more important than a stupid fight that they may have.  

People can be different, and people can be flawed, but that doesn’t make them less worthy to be loved or their love any less worthy. Atypical affirms the humanity of everyone who is different, whether it’s because of a developmental disorder or queerness or for making mistakes they are atoning for. No matter who you are, Atypical seems to say, you are worthy, all on your own.

Atypical is streaming on Netflix.

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