Houston Chronicle Sunday
Final season subtly affirms that series boosted disabilities in TV landscape
Autism is mentioned directly just twice in the final season of Netflix’s “Atypical.” That may surprise some viewers, given the series is built around Sam Gardner, a young man on the autism spectrum. And yet it’s telling — of how the character, show and television landscape have evolved since the series’ 2017 debut.
Those who’ve stuck with the dramedy across its four seasons know the show has been, with varying degrees of success, a voice not only for those with the developmental disorder but for anyone who’s ever felt different. In Season 4, which began streaming July 9, many characters in Sam’s orbit are seeking their purpose — asking, consciously or subconsciously, what they can give to the world.
In the case of Sam (Keir Gilchrist), it’s figuring out what might fill the blank slate that is life after college. After all, he never thought he’d get this far, reflective of the 60 percent of real-life students with autism who don’t graduate, according to the nonprofit College Autism Network. His sister, Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), is defining her sexuality and aspirations to run track; dad Doug (Michael Rapaport) and mom Elsa ( Jennifer Jason Leigh) struggle with different types of loss; girlfriend Paige ( Jenna Boyd) longs for a meaningful career; and best friend Zahid (Nik Dodani) faces a struggle that fundamentally changes him.
Like most feel-good series whose trademark is combining big laughs with big cries, “Atypical” says goodbye with funny, tight writing and “there’s something in my eye” tenderness. In addition to those assets, even those who dismissed the show in its first season because it cast Gilchrist instead of an autistic actor might appreciate the groundwork the series came to lay for disability representation in television.
Season 4 finds Sam — a penguin-obsessed student with a talent for drawing — displaying the same autism manifestations as in prior seasons. When stressed, he huddles in a small space, such as a bathtub or closet, and pulls absentmindedly at his hair when he learns he’s in danger of academic probation for skipping a midterm. To make up for that lost ground, he agrees to be a research assistant and organize files quickly for Professor Judd, played by the underutilized deadpan master Sara Gilbert.
“I used to be not good at deadlines, but now I’m so-so,” Sam tells her with the unfiltered honesty common in autism.
“Stunning self-advocacy,” she replies.
Some will find fault with the idea that Sam, who adheres to rules and rigid schedules, would miss an exam in the first place. Others with autism have voiced disappointment in blogs and on “Atypical” message boards about what they see as the show’s ableist bent — that the character’s lack of awareness of what and how he communicates shouldn’t be the setup for a punchline.
And yet each season the show has increased its autism representation. The new one gives big punchlines to two autistic actors, Domonique Brown and Tal Anderson, who portray Sam’s friends Jasper and Sid, respectively. Anderson, in particular, effectively delivers one-liners.
When Sam needs to raise money for an ambitious project, Sid offers to help. She reminds him she is a business major who already knew how to make big bucks back when she sold a lot of Girl Scout cookies.
“Thin Mints made me a fat cat,” she quips.
The authenticity of that representation can and probably will be debated in other spaces. People may ask whether Anderson and Brown are truly acting or playing themselves, which of course is insulting. The autism spectrum means people’s challenges and talents vary widely. They are playing characters with whom they may or may not share traits, just like any actor playing any role.
A 2018 white paper by the Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates for disability inclusion, found 22 percent of characters with disabilities on network shows were actually portrayed by actors with those disabilities. Across top 10 Nielsenrated shows, 12 percent of all characters with disabilities were depicted by actors with the same diagnoses in real life, up from 5 percent in 2016.
Bigger picture, TV still grossly underrepresents people with disabilities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2018 that 61 million American adults, or nearly 25 percent, live with a disability. Yet a report by GLAAD released this January found just 3.5 percent of regular characters have a disability on broadcast scripted series.
“Atypical” creator Robia
Rashid notes in press material that she has promoted a platform for people with disabilities.
“Every season we have hired people with autism on and off the camera. We audition actors with disabilities for any role, even if the character is not scripted as having a disability,” she says. “We work to have a diverse and inclusive set in every way.”
Some of that diversity and inclusion isn’t about autism. Casey’s storyline about how comfortable she is in her own skin — or not — is poignant. Her bisexuality and broader questions of gender conformity via her private school’s dress code are handled deftly — even if they get so much screen time that they threaten to overtake Sam’s story as the heart of the show.
“Atypical” earns points for never having veered into the territory of so-called “inspiration porn” — media depictions of disability as something to be overcome that make “normal” people feel better about themselves. Casey, in particular, is protective of Sam but hardly condescending; they have a typical (pun intended) sibling relationship built on her trying to annoy her big brother, whom she clearly sees as her equal.
When “Atypical” was new, some viewers with autism were frustrated that the disability was being portrayed in the stereotype of white male nerd. I wrote then that it wasn’t realistic to expect a composite character to bring awareness to autism as anyone other than that guy.
But in the four years since, a social awakening has taken root, and the more inclusive Generation Z is coming of age. If “Atypical” were created today, there’s no reason Sam couldn’t be, say, a queer, nonbinary person of color. With pop culture’s inching toward acceptance of differences, Sam’s autism no longer has to be the primary focus or a lesson in every episode; it’s intrinsically part of who he is, the same as his brown hair. And at least some of the credit goes to a commitment by the show’s creators.
Hollywood has a long way to go, but “Atypical” budged the needle. It’s wide open where disability inclusion, like Sam, goes next.
“That’s what makes new beginnings so exciting,” he says as the final season opens. “You don’t know what will happen until it’s over.”