Life gets bigger and bigger: Thoughts on Atypical season 3

(image via IMP Awards)

Life is full of transitions.

Every time we step out of the metaphorical door of life, everything that we are and want to be changes, as does the way we interact with those around us, in turn, altering the way their lives manifest themselves.

By the very nature of these shifts and turns in our lives, they are inherently messy, something which becomes inherently obvious on season three of Netflix’s Atypical, which centres on the life of Sam (Keir Gilchrist), one young man on the autism spectrum for whom transitions are potentially more problematic than most.

His parents, Elsa and Doug Gardner (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michael Rapaport respectively) have done everything they can to prepare him, Elsa in particular, but as he enters college with a mix of trepidation and excitement, all they can really is sit back and hope their son isn’t one of the four out of five kids on the spectrum who crash out of college.

Sam is, of course, painfully aware of the statistics, the numbers repeating themselves like a self-defeating mantra in his head, reminding him that transitions come loaded with all kinds of incendiary side effects that may prove challenging to navigate.

Delivering another nuanced, measured performance, Gilchrist brings Sam’s unique position to affecting and sometimes hilarious life, without once tipping into anything comical or condescending, keeping the humanity of the moment front and centre, and reminding us over and over that his transition is one shared by the more neuro-typical members of the family.

For instance, while Sam is struggling to make sense of his ethic classes and how to take notes delivered with brutally clipped efficiency by his lecturer Professor Judd (Sara Gilbert) or working out what the essence of his favourite aquarium penguin Stumpy is for his scientific illustration classes (his lecturer is played in warmly spirited fashion by Eric McCormack), his often protective, sometimes arm’s length younger sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) is trying to navigate one hell of a gigantic transition of her own.

To be fair, it’s not so much a transition as the recognition of something that is intrinsically within her and is her, but embracing it, which comes with more than a few existential bumps-and-bruises, is going to fundamentally alter the landscape of her life and her relationships with boyfriend Evan (Graham Rogers) and best friend Izzie (Fivel Stewart), with whom she becomes even closer as the season progresses.

You could simply dismiss what she’s going through as disruptive on a massive scale simply because she’s sixteen and everything she goes through at that stage is, by its nature, going to rock the foundations, but the reality is it’s just the latest in a long line of transitions she has already gone through (moving schools in season 1 was a doozy that still reverberates) and it most certainly won’t be the last.

Elsa and Doug, still mired in the inordinately messy aftereffects of Elsa’s marital infidelity, remain caught in a weird transitional limbo to which the former is hoping for one resolution (the continuation of their marriage) and the latter is unable to make any kind of move to fix (he wants her but doesn’t at the same time, creating a wholly understandable deer-in-headlights standoff).

It’s obvious they both love each other and that the adultery was a result of some pretty serious drift and neglect over the years by both parties, but these kinds of seemingly intractable plunges into the emotional abyss are never easily resolved and as the season progresses, you begin to wonder just how this transition will manifest in its finality.

Ah but see that ‘s the thing – transitions never really end; they simply morph into the one that follows and the one after that, and while there are some people who seem to stop the clock and never leave their self-created rut, the reality is we are all moving from one change to another all the time, the process unceasing, unending and mightily or mildly disruptive, depending on its nature and your willingness to engage with it.

All of the gloriously well-realised characters in Atypical are caught between wanting to move forward and wanting very much to stay put thank you very much, an entirely human response that finds expression in all of us, and which often catches others in its unintended wake.

Sam has to come to grips with this in a multitude of ways as he navigates an ever-evolving and sometimes broken friendship with his best homey Zahid (Nik Dodani) who is going through one impressively chaotically romantic transition of his own with the status quo-stomping alluring Gretchen (Allie Rae Treharne), a romantic relationship with the definitely quirky Paige (Jenna Boyd), whose own college transition comes a-cropper in ways she’s simply not emotionally or otherwise equipped for, and his own growth as a person which is waiting for no one.

It’s all executed by series creator and chief writer Robia Rashid, with deliciously-rich, warm and affecting insight, her approach always a pleasing balance of melodrama and genuine human warmth, the narratives pivoted less on making a rating-grabbing moment than ensuring the characters are authentically human at all times.

Atypical season three is a joy at all times, not because it’s uniformly warm-and-fuzzy in some cloyingly network TV show kind of way where difficulties are gnats and easily swatted away, but because while it is realistic about the way transitions affect us all, it never once loses sight of the way that we are never alone in dealing with him.

Sam, and indeed everyone is his orbit, are woven into a relational web that doesn’t necessarily stunt the effects of these transitions – they will, after all, go off in weirdly unpredictable ways that leaves you scrambling to keep up and make something viable and longterm of them – but helps them becomes part of the overall fabric of life.

Every single episode in this finely-produced third season, which never once drops the storytelling ball and or forgets what real life looks like in all its gloriously messy often self-inflicted unpredictability, is a satisfying reminder that transitions may go to good and bad places but that if we remain connected and lean into the people around us, that surviving them isn’t just possible but happily certain, leading us onto the next transition and the next, and on to places that will change beyond all recognition.

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