There is something utterly freeing and refreshing about Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), the protagonist on Netflix’s Atypical.
An 18-year-old senior on the autism spectrum, Sam is a reassuring presence for all of us, regardless of who we are or our circumstances, that it’s entirely okay to be yourself, and that, all messaging to the contrary, there is no such thing as normal.
Though Sam is growing in leaps and bounds in his understanding and experience of love, sex, life beyond school and life as a member of a typically functionally dysfunctional family – that’s all the good ones right? – and season 2 sees him becoming ever more independent, though not always successfully, he still remains an outlier to what we in the neuro-typical community might see as normal, everyday social niceties.
But that is not a bad thing; he is a reminder, a salient one in a world where the mainstream is still placed on a pedestal and differences are not even close to being universally embraced, that each of us must forge our own path through life and that mistakes, missteps and poor judgement is common to us all.
In fact, in season 2, Sam’s family – over-protective, emotionally-starved mum Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), dad Doug who made great progress in embracing who his son is, and track star close sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) – are all struggling to get life humming along.
There are copious times in the 10-episode second season when Sam’s family are every bit as flawed as each other, with no one able to stand up and claim the prize for most together family member.
Elsa, for instance, starved emotionally from years of caring for Sam on her own, the result of husband Doug’s initial inability to cope with Sam’s diagnosis, embarks on an affair with bartender Nick (Raúl Castillo), recapturing for a moment at least what it feels like to make decisions for herself and not everyone else, particularly Sam.
Like a lot of extramarital affairs, the reasons for why it happens at all are complex and not solely Elsa’s fault and its existence opens a chasm in Elsa and Doug’s marriage, setting in motion all kinds of soul searching.
There’s a veracity and reality to Elsa’s affair and its messy, family-sundering aftermath that speaks to the fact that no matter how good our intentions are, and in Elsa’s case, it’s to provide the best care possible for Sam, there are always unforeseen consequences.
Take the way Elsa and Doug’s marriage has been essentially placed on autopilot for years as everything, often by necessity, and partly by Elsa’s choice – she admits candidly at one point that she’s entirely forgotten what it’s like to be selfish, consumed as she is by the welfare of her son – revolved around Sam.
Or the fact that Casey, who is struggling with life at a private school where she’s on a flashy full scholarship thanks to her athletic abilities and loves her older brother passionately, often feels overshadowed by Sam’s dominating presence.
That’s life right? You get some things right, a whole lot wrong and have to deal with the resulting mess. All the damn time.
Though he is undeniably different from family and friends like cheeky, pot-smoking co-worker Zahid (Nik Dodani) and has his own unique path to forge including falling in love for the first time with the equally-quirky though neuro-typical Paige (Jenna Boyd), and the series rightly places him front and centre, it also refreshingly makes the case, and with great warmth and humanity, that Sam is just as “normal” as everyone else around him.
Gilchrist is superb in the role, imbuing Sam with equal parts knowingness and understanding, uncertain innocence and near-total blindness at times to the way social niceties are never as straightforward as they seem (if only they were, right Sam?), in the process establishing Sam at definitively Other and yet not, just another person with their own unique challenges and abilities.
What makes season 2 such a delight is the way his path towards college, therapy sessions, and then not, with Julia (Amy Okuda), sex, love and the usual rites of passage are presented so normally.
Atypical resists at every point making Sam look special; he is different sure, something even he readily admits, but he’s not portrayed as less-than-truly-human either, a trap that shows which focus on people with disabilities can sometimes fall into, even with the best of intentions.
It doesn’t minimise his differences but nor does it play them up either, acknowledging and using them as a narrative catalyst on more than one occasion while making it clear that he is no better or worse at life than anyone else in his orbit.
It’s a similar story in many ways, though for entirely different reasons, for gay people like myself; too often we are seen as different but dive right in and get to know us, and we are just as human, of course, as the rest of you.
Different definitely but somehow less than or other? Not really when you get down to it.
So is Sam – sure he’s freaked out by loud noises, patterns, changes in routine and only mollified by reciting endless facts about Antarctic life, particularly the penguins whose species names he repeats as a calming incantation (Adelie, Chinstrap, Emperor and Gentoo) but how is that any different from the rest of us with our peculiar ticks and routines?
The refreshing take from Atypical season 2 in which life changes immeasurably while not at the same time, is that we are all different and that’s okay; the true measure of authentic humanity, which the show has in empathetic spades along with a gentle easy tone that never resorts to cheap tricks or histrionics, is how we deal with that difference which should be to acknowledge it, value it and embrace everyone as the unique people they are.
It might seem like a lightweight, twee message but in an age where the Other is being increasingly used to separate, divide and oppress, it’s a powerfully muscular one that Atypical owns completely in its own quiet, heartwarming and transformative way.