Atypical lives up to its name in more ways than one. The Netflix show has the look and feel of a run-of-the-mill US sitcom, with episodes that are half an hour long, and charts the trials and tribulations of a nuclear family. However, as it has progressed through the seasons, it has gained an emotional maturity and a new level of depth and warmth. It tells the story of Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), a teenage boy with autism who begins to explore what it might mean to be independent from his family, who are all dealing with their own issues as well as trying to understand the world from his perspective.
It spins its many plates with skill. This is its fourth and final season, and there have been affairs, breakups, coming-out stories and a lot of conversations about penguins. Now, Sam has moved out of the family home and in with his best friend Zahid, a stoner whose casual approach conflicts with some of Sam’s more rigid routines. Zahid forgets to pay bills, and likes to buy in bulk. At one point, he sits on a throne of toilet rolls, which would have been obscene in April 2020; in these well-stocked times, loo roll has reverted to being a punchline.
Living with flatmates is a life lesson many young people have to learn, whether they are autistic or not; some of us still shiver at the memories of attempts to colour-code a cleaning “rota” that is promptly abandoned in a horror show of crusty pans and hair-blocked plugholes. As well as working out how to coexist peacefully with Zahid – who develops more serious problems of his own later in the series – Sam is trying to keep up with his college work, which is harder than he thought it would be. These seemingly pedestrian concerns lead to clever meditations on ambition and fulfilment, what it means to discover one’s purpose, and how much to sacrifice to get there.
Elsewhere in the Gardner household, Sam’s sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) is now dating her best friend Izzie, and trying to figure out whether and how she fits into the private school she attends on a sporting scholarship. Her ambitions have always been to run her way to a further scholarship at a good university, and she is, as one character puts it, “freaky fast”; the problem is that she is crumbling under the weight of everyone’s expectations. While her mother, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is delighted by this new relationship, Doug (Michael Rappaport) is less than enamoured with it, and with the drama it brings into his daughter’s life.
Neither Doug nor Elsa are in a strong position to judge, however, as both are still recovering from betrayals of a kind, either recent or historical. This is where Atypical really excels. It reminds me of watching the drama My So-Called Life as a teenager in the 90s, and deciding that the parents’ storylines were boring distractions, then revisiting the series as an adult and being astounded at how rich and poignant those adult scenes were. There is poignancy in the parents’ lives and dilemmas here, too. Doug experiences shock and grief, but is unable to talk about it, much as he was unable to cope with Sam’s needs when Sam was a small child. Izzie’s mother is a tarot-reading free spirit who adores Casey but neglects her own daughter’s needs. Elsa is instinctively angry, but the show traces that back to her own mother, who, in her older age, has become a model parent. There are almost always layers upon layers, and it is deceptively clever.
While the show does deal with big themes – it touches on cancer, death, disappointment and dementia – it handles them lightly and tenderly. Sam’s college friends, mostly played by actors with disabilities, provide much of the comic relief, and the decision to focus more on them this time is a smart one. Tal Anderson’s Sid, in particular, really comes into her own. Each episode asks its characters to learn something about themselves and about the world, which they inevitably do, and the resolution is invariably wholesome. In almost any other show, I would find this earnestness unbearable, but it says a lot about the charm of Atypical that it is feelgood and sweet, but never saccharine. I think that is because it seems entirely uncynical, and that lack of cynicism is rare and lovely.
Not every storyline hits the high notes, and there is a definite sense, as the season progresses, that Atypical is winding down, having run its course and said what it needed to say. But it is a beautiful show, celebrating difference, adaptability and an open-hearted approach to life. In the sometimes stagnant world of half-hour sitcoms, it is refreshingly itself.