Most new Netflix series are greeted not merely with acclaim, but with a level of gratitude that the returning Christ might find a little excessive two minutes before Armageddon. In this respect, then, Atypical is proving rather atypical.
The reason for the mixed reception is that its 18-year-old protagonist, Sam, has autism — and, as we know, in these righteous times fictional characters are judged not on whether they’re convincing individual creations but whether they’re virtuous enough as representatives of an entire group. Happily for the bloggers, by that all-important criterion, Atypical was bound to fall a little short. (One especially righteous soul has duly pointed out that Sam is a white heterosexual male, even though ‘in real life, women, queer people and people of colour can be autistic too’.)
Certainly, the show doesn’t avoid many of the familiar motifs surrounding autism — however true some of them might be. When not wearing noise-reduction headphones to cope with school (a school, incidentally, populated by possibly the oldest teenagers since Grease), Sam is a nerdy assistant in a tech store. His obsession with Antarctica means that his small talk features such things as the life cycle of the chinstrap penguin. He’s prone to blurting out — or solemnly expressing — whatever he’s thinking, no matter how tactless. Worse still, much of this is played for laughs, just because it’s funny.
Of course, the programme does try hard to be on the side of the angels. Despite its daring use of jokes, the tone is always kindly, with Sam (a terrific performance by Keir Gilchrist) coming across as enormously likeable. We’re also invited — sometimes not very subtly — to consider the whole business of what ‘normal’ means, with some of his behaviour clearly meant to seem an exaggerated, or simply more honest, version of everybody else’s. This is, above all, the case when it comes to his quest for a girlfriend, which provides the framework for the series. Sam, for example, has trouble understanding what girls are thinking and what he has to do to impress them — despite researching the subject in some detail.
Atypical is equally sympathetic to Sam’s family, who do their well-meaning but often flawed best to help him. His mother Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh in full method mode) is finding it hard to be less needed now that he’s older. Dad Doug (Michael Rapaport) relishes his new role as Sam’s girlfriend consultant, while also facing up to his shame at having been ashamed of his son in the past. Sam’s supposedly younger sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine — a striking example of the show’s taste for overage teenagers) reacts to her brother with a touchingly believable mix of protectiveness, exasperation, love, amusement and resentment at constantly coming second in her parents’ priorities.
As all the family, plus Sam’s somewhat flaky therapist, are given storylines of their own, the result occasionally feels like a mish-mash not so much of different plots as of different genres — some of them complete with non-autism clichés. (See in particular Elsa’s affair with a local barman.) After all that’s gone before, the happy ending is slightly jarring as well: while it suits the show’s sunny nature, it does perhaps make Sam’s autism feel too easily soluble.
Even so, my guess is that most people who watch Atypical will have a good time, as long as they can blank out those righteous objections — which, sad to say, is getting increasingly hard as we all become infected by the virtue-seeking response to fiction.
And now for some shock news. Only Connect is no longer the hardest quiz on television. OK, so you may be able to rattle off the provinces of Canada from east to west, but do you know which costs the least: a jar of Sainsbury’s cumin seeds, a jar of Tesco saffron or a packet of fresh thyme from M&S?
Yes, this is indeed Cheap Cheap Cheap (Channel 4, weekdays), Noel Edmonds’s latest — and in the teeth of some pretty fierce competition from empty red boxes and large pink creatures repeating the word ‘blobby’— surely weirdest-ever show. The quiz part really does consist solely of contestants having to identify the cheapest item of three in a series of wildly random categories. Nor are those contestants in any rush to decide, mulling away at some length (‘What percentage of cotton is in the Moss Bros shirt compared to the John Lewis?’) before understandably getting the wrong answer.
And just in case that’s not strange enough, the whole thing is set in a fake bric-à-brac shop with a fake staff of amusing working-class people who exchange surprisingly pointed banter with boss Noel. ‘Is that what you’re going to do all the way through?’ one of them asked him recently as another trio of items appeared. ‘I don’t think people will watch this.’
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free