by Tim Goodman
Netflix’s newest series stars Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michael Rapaport as the parents of an autistic teen.
If enjoy watching good shows with the potential to be a very good shows suddenly shoot themselves repeatedly in the foot, then Netflix’s new dramedy “Atypical,” about an autistic teenage boy’s coming of age, is for you.
Yeah, ultimately it’s a tragedy, not a dramedy.
What starts off as a well-written, pedigreed look at autism, made with both humor and heart — giving the first impression that Netflix has a high-caliber new scripted series on its hands — suddenly makes a series of bone-headed network-television-level decisions that reduce “Atypical” to a set of easily digestible, “TGIF”-styled 30-plus-minute installments of disappointment.
That’s not to cast a dark shadow on all of network television, of course, since ABC’s “Speechless” is an infinitely better show cut from similar cloth.
What’s faintly depressing about “Atypical” is that you absolutely want it to succeed. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michael Rapaport play Elsa and Doug, parents to Sam (Keir Gilchrist, in a standout performance that deserves better writing), a teenager on the spectrum trying to step out from under his parent’s protective umbrella into an uncertain world. Older sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) is there to both protect him and be annoyed by him, as any true teenage sibling would be.
Sam has a therapist, Julia (Amy Okuda), whose helpful advice about growing up often clashes with that of Elsa, who behaves very believably like a protective mother.
In fact, early on in “Atypical,” everybody is behaving pretty believably. Of course, that might depend on whether you believe Sam’s performance is or is not persuasively representative of the behavior of someone on the spectrum (the series has an advisor with a clinical background in the behavior of children with autism).
Although it might have been asking too much for Atypical to be as good as last year’s “The A Word” from Sundance, all the early signs were very positive.
Sure, it’s probably fair to say that “Atypical” has a series of narrative reaches that heighten both the drama and the laughter that will come under greater scrutiny from, say, parents of autistic children. But this is television — it often embellishes its characters, from doctors to lawyers to journalists and trash collectors. Autism isn’t guaranteed a pitch-perfect representation.
But early on the series seems intelligently written and deftly acted. Gilchrist’s no-nonsense portrayal of the brutally honest Sam, lacking in social graces and behavioral norms because he struggles to grasp emotional nuances, helps viewers understand his plight (and that of his family) but also laugh along in the right spots. As Elsa, Leigh is the overly protective mother. She means well, but has blocked out both husband Doug and daughter Casey in her relentless pursuit to help/shield Sam. Rapaport, who can often be miscast as the New York lout, is wonderfully effective as Doug, the father who doesn’t understand his own kid, isn’t welcomed in by that kid and yet slowly learns to connect; his straightforward sincerity and advice are often more effective than the intellectualized, bookish responses of Elsa. Lundy-Paine strikes a nice balance between the jealousy/annoyances that being the ignored “normal” kid would rightfully bring and big-sis protectiveness.
Like all series, there are one or two casting decisions meant to be a little more far-fetched, like Sam’s bad-advice-giving friend Zahid (Nik Dodani) is here. And that’s acceptable. But the downfall of “Atypical” comes from a rapid series of ill-advised choices the characters make (Netflix asked critic’s not to “spoil” the biggest — and worst — of them; let’s just say Elsa’s storyline does the most damage).
Whereas the jokes with Sam worked at the start (he wants a girlfriend but doesn’t know how to act around girls, and Zahid’s advice is laughably bad; a YouTube video called “How to Talk to Hos” is clearly even worse), they devolve into a series of more wince-inducing social miscues. Still, Gilchrist’s performance is so good it can steer away from much of the tone trouble. The same is mostly true for Rapaport. But the show keeps backsliding, becoming unbelievable and poorly written and executed faster than you can say “ABC Afterschool Special.” Repeatedly wrongheaded decisions, mostly from Elsa, turn Atypical into a contrived mess shockingly fast; you watch it go from potential Netflix gem to no-thanks network hash in roughly four episodes.