Nixing the Norms
“I never feel normal,” says the writer-producer who explores a teen’s life on the autism spectrum.
The new Netflix series Atypical opens with a closeup of fidgeting hands that repeat the same action over and over. Two fingers hold a rubber band taut. The other hand takes a pencil and uses it to stretch the band further and then let it go. Tug. Release. Tug. Release. Tug. Release…
An off-camera voice says, “I’m a weirdo. That’s what everyone says.”
Meet Sam, a high school student, played by Keir Gilchrist, who has autism spectrum disorder. A wider shot reveals that he’s in the middle of a therapy session during which he complains that he’ll never get a girlfriend.
He believes this, because, among his various symptoms, he has difficulty making eye contact, he can’t stand being touched, he shows little or no empathy and he misreads all kinds of social cues. If a girl flirtatiously eyeballs him, he wonders if she’s mad. When he tries to smile, it comes off as a menacing grimace. His repetitive motion behavior similarly causes people to back away.
But then, everybody in this coming-of-age comedy is struggling in one way or another.
“The theme of the show is, nobody’s normal,” says creator–executive producer Robia Rashid, who’s fashioned an orbit of complicated characters around Sam.
They include his tough-love sister (Brigette Lundy-Paine); his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who plunges into an identity crisis when her son pulls from her helicopter-mom hover; and his dad (Michael Rapaport), who longs to cross that emotional divide with his son.
There’s also a throng of high school peers who largely view Sam as an oddball (despite his being rather high functioning on the spectrum) and pile onto his feelings of alienation.
the child of white and Pakistani parents, Rashid says she relates: “I never feel normal. I’ve always stuck out like a sore thumb.” Which likely provided her the edge needed to write for such TV comedies as The Goldbergs, How I Met Your Mother, Aliens in America and Will & Grace.
There was something else, though, that drove her to conceive this eight-episode series, which begins streaming August 11. “This is an issue that’s close to my heart and my life,” she says. “I have a person close to me who’s on the spectrum.”
As she began researching the disorder in earnest, she discovered websites by and for people with autism that help them ascertain and develop the social skills to date. Connecting with the opposite sex becomes Sam’s quest this first season.
Rashid and executive producer–director Seth Gordon moved cautiously in casting Sam. Some actors on the spectrum auditioned. Gilchrist, who’s not, won the part after getting called back about six times.
“We wanted to be really, really sure,” Rashid says. “Keir ended up being the best fit.” Rashid has written Sam in a way that allows viewers to laugh with him, even when he can’t laugh aloud himself due to his disorder.
In session with his therapist, Julia (Amy Okuda), Sam bemoans his dating prospects, which he views as utterly abysmal. She tells him he can date if he just “puts himself out there.”
Truly perplexed as to what in the world she’s talking about, he responds:
“Out where ?”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2017