Television and Radio Criticism

Atypical - Cunningham

Atypical is a whirlwind of a show that is always keeping you on your feet. The personal mode of writing makes you feel like you are part of the family. First kisses to baby penguins,  by the end of season two you will all be asking “What is Typical?”

Atypical follows the life of an 18-year-old named Sam Gardner [Keir Gilchrist] as he navigated the world in his own way. Although Sam is on the spectrum of autism, he is considered to be high functioning. His daily trials keep you on the edge of your seat, continually rooting from him to succeed. However, the show is not merely an underdog story. The show follows the Gardner family through each of their journeys during Sam’s final year in high school. Time and time again they all overcome obstacles in there way to grow as individuals and as a family.


My personal favorite part about Atypical is the strong storyline that each member of the Gardener family has. You can connect with the overwhelmed mom, the seemingly disconnected dad, the finding her own path sister, and the leaving the nest son. None of the storylines are based on autism, they just include it as an everyday part of life. This translates to the creator’s desire to educate the public and show that people on the spectrum should have more opportunities to live life alongside neurotypicals. This includes necessary school accommodations and the ability to have regular jobs.

In season 1 Sam becomes determined to find a girlfriend and ultimately complete his lifelong quest to see boobs. However, as he begins to dive into the dating pool, he realizes that girls aren’t as black and white as his notebook would suggest. At first glance, you want to blame Sam’s autism for his romantic missteps, but then you take a second and think. What teenage boy fluently understands adolescent girls? Sam’s eventual relationship with Paige [Jenna Boyd] becomes the classic story of boy meets girl, girl teaches boy the rules of a relationship, boy offends girl, girl decapitates a giant stuffed bird on boys lawn. Sam is not the only character to receive a spicy love story in this dramedy. Sam’s your sister Casey [Brigette Lundy-Paine] and mother Elsa [Jennifer Jason Leigh] get to have their own love entanglements.

One of the biggest obstacles that Sam has to navigate is his well-intentioned mother. Like many mothers budding teens, Elsa has a hard time loosening the reins to let Sam become more independent. Elsa’s need to be needed begins to send her down a steep rabbit hole of lust and deception. Her true desires are to keep her son at home with her where she knows he will be safe. It is easy to see where Elsa’s anxieties are coming from, Sam does have a history of crossing the street with his eyes closed after all. However, the more episode you watch, the more you see that no form of limitations benefits him. Elsa becomes so desperate to regain some control that she stoops so low as to try and ruin shopping for Sam so that she can remain his stylist forever.


But even with all that, we still haven't talked about the real stars of the show: penguins. Somehow, the writers of Atypical have ingrained penguins into every fiber of the show. If you don’t love the strange little guys yet, you will. Sam fixates on learning everything there is to know about the Arctic and the 4 types of penguins that live there. They are his connection to the world and a gateway communication between him and the people around him. At his most vulnerable state, he recites the names of the penguins to bring himself back to a more peaceful state of mind. Adélie, Chinstrap, Emperor, Gentoo. Adélie, Chinstrap, Emperor, Gentoo.

All in all Atypical is a show that is great to watch. It is both entertaining and educational, bringing the viewer into a world that is often hidden away out of shame. Season 2 of the show even brought on autistic actors to further drive the authenticity of Sam’s experience. The multidimensional characters provide a realist view of what it is like to be connected to a person who is on the spectrum and allows for a bit of compassion to be passed onto the viewer as well. In the end, this is a show about a young man who has autism, not a show about an autistic young man.


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