Change isn’t easy for most high schoolers, but for senior Sam Gardner in the second season of Netflix drama “Atypical,” the mere thought of college or ending a relationship with a girl who isn’t really his girlfriend or discovering that his parents are having marital issues is tantamount to a global catastrophe.
Life is simply more intense for Sam (Keir Gilchrist), a teen who’s high on the autism spectrum. And it’s through his perspective that we see his once tight family falling apart due to his mother Elsa’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) affair, the clumsy efforts of his father, Doug (Michael Rapaport), to hold things together and the struggles his tomboy sister and protector, Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), faces as she transfers out of the public school they both attended to pursue a track-and-field scholarship at a snobby private school.
The unique perspective, sharp humor and empathy that made Season 1 a welcome anomaly in the field of family dramas continues with the ten-episode Season 2, out Friday on the streaming network.
Sam describes his feelings to viewers and his various therapists through what he knows best: arcane facts about the Antarctic.
Regarding the stress his mother’s extramarital affair with a bartender put on the family, he says, “There’s a hole in the Antarctic the size of Maine. It’s most probably the result of hot water bubbling under the ice. Invisible but destroying ice sheets from under the surface.”
He analogizes the tension building between him and his sister just before it turns into a brawl on the kitchen floor where she throws punches and he curls up like a “potato bug”: “Inch by inch, one layer at a time. What was once thick ice gets so thin it cracks wide open.”
“Every family is quirky,” says Jason Leigh, whose character Elsa has painful flashbacks throughout Season 2 of earlier days when she and Doug were coming to terms with their son’s newly diagnosed disability.
“For Elsa, she’s just trying to find her place now that Sam is becoming more independent. It’s that feeling of not being needed, but not knowing when you might be needed, and hoping you'll be needed, but at that same time, being glad that you're not needed. The things that all parents go through when their kids are graduating [from] high school, whether they're on the spectrum or not.”
And the Gardners, like most families, aren’t saints. Casey and Sam fight; Elsa and Doug fight. And most of the family are worn around the edges from having sacrificed to protect and nurture Sam.
They are dysfunctional, for sure, but that dysfunction is often funny.
Sam, who is very matter-of-fact, tends to have the best lines here. When a love interest he’s made out with at school tries to explain why they can still make out, but they’re not girlfriend and boyfriend, he’s lost. He describes the gender-specific communication breakdown later in a therapy session: “It’s like she’s a whale or dolphin using echolocation, and I’m a boy speaking English.”
The show’s creator, Robia Rashid, knew it was risky infusing edgy humor into a show dealing with such potentially serious issues. After all, Sam’s developmental disabilities shaped the very fabric of the family — for better and worse.
“Humor has been a real priority of ours on the show,” said Rashid on set while the show was shooting in Los Angeles earlier this year. “Keeping it funny but never making Sam the butt of a joke.”
Rashid and her team heavily researched autism and life on the spectrum to create a series that was both authentic and respectful. This season, they added advisor David Finch whose book “Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband” is his firsthand account of living on the spectrum.
They also hired actors on the spectrum. Some of the performers play characters with autism, while others play the roles of neurotypicals.
While on set, Gilchrist said it seemed only right that his new cast members get to portray neurotypicals on the show since he’s been portraying a teen with autism, and he’s not atypical.
“They could have been my toughest audience ever,” he said. “It would be a nightmare if they were like ‘Whoa, you’re not doing this right. This isn't real to me.’ ”
But that’s not what happened, said Gilchrist. Instead, they supported his portrayal of Sam and drove the point home that there is no one singular definition of what autism looks like.
“There's the propensity to say 'Sam is what autism is,’ but Sam is just one person on the spectrum, and it's such a vast, interesting spectrum,” said Gilchrist.
“Atypical” is irreverent when it needs to be, insightful when it counts and, above all, empathetic to the pressures of growing up — on or off the spectrum.
When Sam visits his former therapist and crush, Julia (Amy Okuda), he uses more Antarctic analogies to express his pain. Penguin eggs, nests, ice. Still, she understands and commends him for handling all these pressures with a maturity of an adult.
It’s one of many moving and awkward moments that makes “Atypical” a wonderfully atypical family drama.
“The Gardners are in many ways a traditional family,” says Jason Leigh. “Because every family has its difficulties. Elsa has an affair that affects the entire family. We can go over exactly why and how she does it, but that's a very damaging thing to do to a family, and, for her, it's also a lifeline. It's about so many things. But it’s mainly about just navigating being a family in this world today.”