When the Netflix original series Atypical premiered in the summer of 2017, I was skeptical. Too often shows that feature autistic characters perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes or otherwise exploit autism tropes for cheap emotional appeal. However, I was quickly and happily surprised when the mini-series used Sam—the show’s main character—and his autism not to paint him as atypical, but rather to draw out the atypicality of the human condition—particularly the manner in which human beings love (and sometimes fail to love) one another.
Season 2 picked up right where season 1 left off, both in plot and theme. Season 1 suffered in the first few episodes as the show found its feet, but season 2 contains no such lag. In fact, my two chief complaints with season 1 were quickly addressed in the show’s sophomore outing; season 2’s humor was more frequently derived from the experiences of characters other than Sam, and several episodes featured actually autistic people.Although the redeeming power of community has become a nearly trite refrain among Christian spaces, Atypical points to the price community demands.
The show’s plot resumes at more or less the same place it left off—Elsa and Doug, Sam’s parents, attempt to put their family back together after Elsa’s extramarital affair was revealed in the final episode of season 1. Casey, Sam’s younger sister, prepares to attend a prestigious private school on a track scholarship, and Sam puts his search for a girlfriend on the back burner as he turns his sights toward weightier goals: graduating high school and attending a four-year college.
Sam’s pursuit of college acceptance struck a better chord with me than his quest to find a girlfriend. While most teenagers strive to fit into a romantic relationship, the fact that Sam is autistic adds an undeniable inflection to these aspirations—it implies that Sam is neither easily lovable nor does he easily love. This plays into a stereotype all too commonly assumed of autistic people—that they are incapable of empathy. While Atypical eventually resolves this stereotype in a positive way in season 1, it was refreshing to see season 2 turn an autism trope on its ear from the start: the idea that autistic people cannot aspire to goals like college or post-secondary employment.
While season 1 explored the idea of how to love, season 2 explores the idea of how to hope. For Sam and Elsa, hope manifests as religiously maintained to-do lists and meticulous planning; Casey and Doug take a less cerebral approach, feeling their way, sometimes clumsily, through new situations. Neither proves a better tactic than the other, as every member of the Gardner family loses their way at some point in the course of season 2. However, where preparedness and heart fail, community intervenes, a theme that has permeated both seasons.
At the end of the first season, Sam’s girlfriend, Paige, coordinates a “silent dance” by piping in music to a set of donated Bluetooth headphones rather than playing it on speakers that would prove too loud for Sam. While I’m not an emotional person, this scene nearly brings me to tears every time; as my own autistic son grows, I hope that he, too, is surrounded by the type of community that makes room for his atypicalities.
In season 2 of Atypical, we see Sam participating in community not as the recipient of another’s goodwill, but as a capable, needed family member and friend. He helps his sister study for a biology test, offers emotional support to his friend Zahid, and, most notably, gives Paige’s valedictorian speech at graduation when she loses her voice. Of course, he receives help, too. Paige loses her voice in the first place while defending Sam, for example, and Zahid attempts to advocate for Sam when the police mistake Sam for someone using drugs. But because Sam participates equally in the transaction that propels community forward, it feels neither charitable—as if his friends take up for him because they are good people—nor forced. Rather, once again, this depiction of community frames Sam’s atypicality as an ironically typical experience.
While many were disappointed to find that Sam’s story was less of a focal point during this season of Atypical, this decision helped to more firmly define the show as one concerned with positive inflections of diversity and how that plays out in community. Although the redeeming power of community has become a nearly trite refrain among Christian spaces, Atypical points to the price community demands. While, at its best, community means championing one another’s causes, at its most difficult community requires that we lay aside our own needs to make room for everyone. Functionally this means co-existing with people we may not like, listening to ideas that seem foreign at best, or footing the bill of a debt for which we do not feel responsible.
Community is frustrating, sometimes futile. It is such an emotionally, mentally, and fiscally taxing task that sometimes we draw limits around our inclusivity to our detriment. But when community works, we can overcome individual shortcomings with collective strength—strength that is drawn from our atypicalities. And that depiction is what makes season 2 of Atypical worth watching.