Warning: This review contains spoilers for the series “Atypical” on Netflix, which you should already be watching because it is an amazing show that can warm you up if you feel dead inside.
Move over “The Good Doctor” — “Atypical” has a much better, more grounded portrayal of people on the autism spectrum. It’s not the perfect portrayal of the entire spectrum, but its sophomore season is proving that it can be receptive to criticisms brought up by the autistic community and continue to evolve toward better representation.
The second season continues to follow high school senior Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), a high-functioning autistic teenager, on his coming-of-age exploits and misadventures in the dating world. The show expands on its main storylines, delving deeper into each of the Gardners’ lives outside of their relationships to Sam.
Picking up right where the first season left off, the show tracks Sam’s parents Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Doug (Michael Rapaport) after Elsa’s affair is revealed. Meanwhile, Sam’s sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) sets off to her new, swanky private school and runs into new hurdles with the track team.
While the second season has successfully evolved into a family dramedy rather than focusing solely on Sam, it still struggles to figure out what to do with its supporting characters. In one episode, the show briefly touches on Sam’s friend and co-worker Zahid’s (Nik Dodani) past aspirations of being a nurse and his fear of failure. In the episodes after this, Zahid immediately returns to being the token person of color character whose only purpose is comedic relief.
The show also attempts to give Sam’s old therapist Julia (Amy Okuda) a storyline about her pregnancy, checking in on her every few episodes. But her narrative seems tangential to the overarching story, since she has no relation to Sam anymore. And Casey’s boyfriend Evan (Graham Rogers) continues to be a pretty face who seems to have no other purpose besides being Casey’s boyfriend.
Although “Atypical” attempts to develop its supporting characters fall short, the show does successfully continue to explore social issues, tentatively tackling sexual identity through Casey’s burgeoning friendship with Clayton Prep teammate Izzie (Fivel Stewart). With the second season’s cliffhanger setting up Casey and Izzie’s romantic relationship, it is clear that “Atypical” is ready to broaden the topics it addresses.
Even though it expands its focus, “Atypical” still knows where its heart lies — with the Gardner children. Despite extensively covering Elsa and Doug’s damaged marriage and Casey’s attempt to fit in with her wealthy, private school peers, “Atypical” continues to bring the siblings together to support each other when they’re knocked down. From Sam tutoring Casey in biology to Casey dancing dorkily at her party to fulfill Sam’s birthday ritual, the familial love between the two is strongly evident, mostly because of the on-camera chemistry between Lundy-Paine and Gilchrist.
The best part of the show’s second season is that for every misstep “Atypical” has had in the past, it bounces back to fix its previous stumbles. After criticism for its lack of autistic actors and its limited representation of the autism spectrum in the first season, the show introduced a new storyline in which Sam joins an autism support group. The show also cast a multicultural group of autistic actors to provide a more authentic portrayal.
In the overwhelming tsunami of original Netflix content released almost on a weekly basis, “Atypical” still stands out as one of the best shows the streaming service has to offer because of its dedication to fixing past mistakes. “Atypical’s” active engagement in improving its portrayal of the autism community is an important lesson in how a show can go beyond just apologizing for misrepresentation.
By introducing a group of autistic characters — teenagers — beyond Sam into the show, “Atypical” continues to enrich its autistic community, developing the quality of the show in the process. Even though it is overshadowed by the buzzier “Stranger Things” or critical darling “The Crown,” the show does something that none of these other shows have been able to.
“Atypical” is tangible proof that a show can listen to its audience members, take note of what they have to say, and improve. As audiences raise the bar for what they expect of the show, “Atypical” has adapted to meet new standards of diverse representation.
The show already takes on the narrative of an underrepresented group. And yet, it is still willing to grow in the ways it champions this community. In today’s media, in which accurate representation is constantly called for and infrequently met, “Atypical” serves as a perfect model of how a show can continually progress.
Julie Lim covers television. Contact her at [email protected].