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One of the greatest features of Netflix is the constant stream of new films and shows available to watch. A few weeks ago, I happened to stumble upon a Netflix original series called Atypical. I'm not exactly sure what made me linger on it long enough to read the description, but once I did, I was intrigued enough to start watching. I'm so happy that I did because within the show's opening minutes, I already felt myself becoming hooked.
The show is a sort of coming of age story centering around Sam Gardner, played by relative newcomer Keir Gilchrist, an eighteen year old on the autism spectrum. When Sam, who's classified as having High functioning autism, decides he wants to start dating, he begins compiling research to help him navigate the incredibly messy and complex world of sex and relationships. While Sam's father Doug (Michael Rapaport), is thrilled that Sam wants to start dating, especially after his usually distant son starts coming to him for advice, Sam's more overprotective mother Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is worried that he's not ready to deal with the subtleties of the dating world. On the other hand, Sam's younger sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), a wise-cracking track star at their high school, is just amused at the idea of him dating even as she deals with her own love life and the regular trials and tribulations of high school.
With the help of his parents and sister, his therapist Julia (Amy Okuda) and his geeky Lothario friend Zahid (Nik Dodani), Sam embarks on a well researched mission to get himself a girlfriend and experience what all the hype is about. Along the way, Sam's exploration of sex and dating leads his family and friends to re-examine their own priorities, putting them each on a path of self-discovery.
I'll admit that I don't know much about autism other than the fact that people on the spectrum can often have difficulty interacting with people and can feel anxious in social situations, among other behavioral issues. Given that Sam is considered high functioning, he's able to speak articulately, but often feels overwhelmed in places with a lot of people, loud noises, or bright lights. Because of his difficulty recognizing unspoken social cues, Sam is very literal and usually brutally honest with all people in his life and this lack of social graces coupled with the ridiculous dating advice of his work friend and self-styled ladies man, Zahid, leads to some of the show's funniest moments as he attempts, in his methodical way, to woo a girl.
Although much of the focus is on Sam's attempts at getting a girlfriend, the show takes the time to delve into the lives of the supporting cast, fleshing them out as more than just Sam's support team. His sister Casey in particular is one of the standouts of the show, balancing her own desire for recognition from her family for her accomplishments in track while looking out for her older brother Sam, even if she still torments him now and then as siblings do. Sam's parents as well are shown to be dealing with the ramifications of Sam's quest to find love in different ways, ways which bring to light some dormant issues in their marriage.
The show takes an honest, unflinching look at how overwhelming the world can be to people on the spectrum, especially when dealing with the almost exclusively unspoken language of love and relationships, but it still manages to extract genuine humor from the situations that Sam faces with his trademark honesty and straightforwardness. One of the highlights of the show is how Sam makes sense of the world and human nature by relating it to the behavior of animals, particularly penguins, in Antarctica. One of the aspects of autism can be a tendency to become fixated on certain things and Antarctica seems to be one of Sam's fixations. Through his many references to Antarctica's harsh landscape and animal life, we get an insider view into how Sam makes sense of the world around him.
The show's only had one season thus far and with only eight half hour episodes, they go fast, especially if you binge watch them (and chances are you will), but the good news is that the show's been renewed for a ten episode second season. I for one can't wait to see where the show goes after the events of the first season. If you're in the market for a new show, one that can both educate and entertain with plenty of laughs but also real characters and situations, then it's a safe bet that Atypical will quickly become one of your new favorites.