When the trailer for Atypical, a new Netflix series, dropped, the online autistic community shared a collective groan. It’s a story we’ve all seen before: Awkward autistic white guy tries to date girls. Hugh Dancy did it in Adam.
Many autistic people were concerned about poor representation, since the actor playing the main character, Sam, is not autistic. Netflix assured people that the “social production team,” whatever that is, included autistic people. The social production team doesn’t seem important enough to merit a credit. Their full time consultant appears to be a researcher from UCLA — Not exactly someone who would be able to provide input on a humanizing portrayal of an autistic person. And it shows. Sam reads like a DSM diagnostic checklist, not a person.
After watching one episode, I feel confident saying that it is exactly as bad as you thought it was. Possibly worse. I committed to writing recaps/reviews of each episode, and this is definitely shaping up to be an “I’ll watch it so you don’t have to” sort of situation. So let’s dive in.
‘I’m a weirdo. That’s what everyone says.’
We kick off in Sam (Keir Gilchrist) fiddling with a rubber band during a session with his therapist, Julia Sasaki (Amy Okuda). Sam informs Julia that this is what he calls his “self-stimulatory behavior.” I feel fairly confident that no one outside a classroom or a psychology textbook has ever called what Sam is doing with his hands “self-stimulatory behavior.” Sam then proceeds to talk about how he will never have a girlfriend or visit Antarctica. These are his interests, and now that they have been explicitly laid out, that’s all we get from him in terms of character definition and development.
Sam then points out that his therapist’s bra strap is showing, and it’s purple. For some bizarre reason, Julia doesn’t tell him that this is an inappropriate thing to do. The scene caps off with Julia asking if Sam would like to donate his brain for research purposes. What kind of research? Apparently that isn’t important. She then reassures him that she means she would like his brain after he dies.
I’d totally watch a horror movie where Sam’s doesn’t mean she wants his brain after he does.
‘No, no, no That’s not what I’m saying’
At school, work, and finally home the autism diagnostic criteria checklist continues. Sam’s sister, Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), helps him make an online dating profile. When he talks about how much he lives penguins, his sister shuts him down. “OK, I’ll put sports.” Telling autistic teens (or really any teens) that to be attractive they have to lie about their interests is pretty toxic. Here, it’s played for laughs. Repeatedly. We also meet Sam’s pet turtle, Edison. For the record, a real autistic person would name their turtle Tesla.
Of course, no stereotypical portrayal of autism would be complete without the “an autistic kid will ruin your marriage” trope. Apparently Sam’s parents haven’t gone on a date or been intimate in years. The show works hard to attribute this to Sam, but it doesn’t seem he’s done anything to cause this other than existing and being different.
Sam’s mother continues to being overbearing and controlling by confronting his therapist and telling her Sam shouldn’t be encouraged to date because “he might get his heart broken.” I have to say, this does buck some stereotypes. Most autistic women have had that awkward “you should marry my son!” interaction at autism meetups and an increasing number of autism moms have been hiring sex workers. This is awful in a completely different way. And Sam’s therapist continues to be terrible at her job by failing to enforce healthy boundaries.
In a montage, Sam “studies” dating by watching other men and boys sexually harass women. Then his sister tells him that he needs to make sure he doesn’t talk about, “seals or penguins or whatever.” Because obviously, concealing what you like and care about is the bedrock of any healthy relationship.
‘You’re crossing the line from flirty to creepy’
Sam’s therapist, Julia, continues to fail to point out what’s acceptable vs. unacceptable. When she notices Sam has written “insults = get chick on dick” in his notebook, she ignores it for some reason. She tells Sam he’s being creepy, but doesn’t explain what that means.
Meanwhile, Sam’s parents go on a date. Elsa goes on a tear about how much she suffers and how Sam’s father totally doesn’t understand her terrible agony as an autism parent. Which is bizarre, since Sam’s father lives with her and Sam, and seems fairly involved in Sam’s life. Sam’s father suggests she checks out a dance class. She makes some friends there and goes to a bar with them. Then she almost cheats on her husband with the bartender because… Her son’s autism, I guess?
Sam brings a girl on a date to a coffee shop and insults her, sometimes in a graphically sexual way, then asks her if she’d be willing to get rid of her cat. Is this supposed to be funny? I honestly can’t tell, and I don’t think it’s because I’m autistic. Sam goes on a date with another girl in the tech store parking lot. She takes him back to her dorm room for some reason. She seems completely hollow inside — Even more than Sam, who is basically a walking DSM checklist. Sam doesn’t like light pressure (fine, I don’t either) and when the girl touches him softly, he pushes her off the bed suddenly. Of course, Sam has been trained from the beginning of this episode to never say how he actually feels or thinks. He put up with being touched in a way he didn’t like until he couldn’t stand it anymore, because everyone in his life drills into him that his thoughts and feelings are weird and wrong.
As an aside, if the genders were switched and a college boy brought a high school girl back to his dorm room for sex after one date, we’d all probably agree the interaction is predatory. This interaction is predatory too. There’s an experience gap and power differential involved that matters.
The episode ends with Sam wanting to “mate” with his therapist, so he offers her his brain for research. Yuck.
- Whether she’s punching the school bully in the face or standing up for her brother while playfully punching him herself, Sam’s sister Casey is the most likeable, complex character on the show.
- Turtles are cool.
- Everything else
- How is it that a character who is allegedly obsessed with penguins thinks that penguins mate for life? Sloppy research on the part of the writers.
Neurotypical Bullshit (NTBS)-O-Meter
- “Dude, nobody’s normal” is completely bullshit. There’s a reason autism is a disability.
So what did you think? Good, bad, or just indifferent? Can Netflix turn this around? Weigh in on the comments below.