Netflix’s Atypical Explores How We Fail to Love Each Other
I didn’t have high expectations for the Netflix original series Atypical. I feared it would capitalize cheaply on the recent traction that autism awareness has gained in media — a trend I first noticed with the 2009 hit drama Parenthood and, most recently, with Sesame Street’s introduction of a young autistic character.
As a parent of an autistic child, it’s a massive encouragement to see the positive inclusion of such characters. When my son wears headphones in public or won’t make eye contact with a stranger — when he can’t sit still or balks at even a minor change in routine — baffled strangers now have some framework by which to understand the word autism. I know full well this is a privilege parents even 10 years ago did not have, and one likely granted by this increased awareness in media.
However, the downside to this recent trend is the unwitting perpetuation of stereotypes. The most nagging (to me, at least) is that people with autism are incapable of empathy. While my son often struggles to detect social cues that might signal a need for empathy in typically developing people, he has no shortage of empathy itself. Even so, one of the first things people assume about Declan is that he lacks a fundamental sense of compassion toward others. I worried Atypical would perpetuate this misconception, and in the first few episodes, it seemed like I was right.Netflix’s Atypical is not truly about a boy with autism. Rather, it’s about the way love ebbs and flows through every community.
Atypical has a fairly basic premise: Sam, an 18-year-old high school senior with autism, decides to begin dating, largely at the encouragement of his pretty, 20-something therapist. Much of the show’s humor is generated from the predictable gap between what the viewer knows and what Sam doesn’t. As he bumbles through clumsy socializations with girls, the audience half-cringes and half-laughs at the resulting awkward interactions. The result is an OK show with a highly predictable but still mildly entertaining formula.
About halfway through season one, however, Atypical really hits its stride and transforms from OK to excellent. The tone changes from a formulaic sitcom to a perfectly balanced drama, one that uses Sam’s autism as a focal point but not the ultimate point.
While the show’s writers continue to extract most of Atypical’s humor from the discrepancy between what Sam knows about love (which is nothing), and what the audience assumes it knows, they avoid becoming exploitative by using the show’s other characters to strike repeatedly at a single question: “What is love?” By the season one finale, it becomes blatantly obvious: Sam may be atypical for many reasons, but the fact that he knows nothing about love is perhaps the most typical thing about him. Lacking understanding doesn’t make him unlike his family and friends, but rather, strikingly similar to them.
In fact, Sam’s acknowledgement that love is complex and he doesn’t understand it makes him more advanced than both the rest of his family and us in the audience. We assumed ourselves experts during episode one but are revealed to be novices by the season finale.
Netflix’s series is not truly about a boy with autism. Rather, it’s about the way love ebbs and flows through every community. Sam’s autism is certainly a worthy tool within Atypical, but it’s utilized not as a portrait but as a mirror — a way by which viewers might reconcile their perceived expertise in love with their actual failings to love well.
This is a particularly valuable lesson for Christians, a group of people whose central doctrine is mobilized by love. As such, we rightly scrutinize both the theory and application of love, and one of the more popular conclusions we have recently come to is this: love is a verb, not a noun.
While I don’t disagree with this notion outright, I disagree with it as a summative conclusion. It’s too tidy a sentiment to account for the complexity of human inflections concerning love. It doesn’t account for the often gaping holes between what love should compel us to do and what we actually do. It doesn’t adequately portray love when our actions don’t honor our relationships. Finally, it offers no way forward when there’s hard work to be done in reconciling these extremes.
For example, unbeknownst to Sam, his parents’ marriage — which seems perfect at a glance — is riddled with failings. Perhaps the largest is revealed early on in season one, when Sam’s father admits to having left the family for about eight months after Sam was diagnosed with autism. He couldn’t come to terms with Sam’s diagnosis and ultimately abandoned his wife for nearly a year, leaving her to care for two toddlers alone. Though he never had an affair and ultimately did return and mend his marriage, his abandonment left lasting damage — damage that may have partly contributed to Sam’s mother committing adultery during season one.
It would be easy to say that Sam’s parents failed to love each other — and, in a way, they did. They both certainly failed to act lovingly. But to summarize more than two decades of relationship with one another as devoid of love is a massive oversimplification. Much harder is the admission that Sam’s parents loved one another and sinned against one another anyway.
And yet, that’s the uncomfortable dissonance we’re often called to exist in as humans — the discrepancy between what we should do and what we actually do, the clumsy evolution from noun to verb. Yes, Scripture tells us how to carry out love. But it also clearly points to the origin of love, and it’s not a to do list: 1 John 4:8 tells us that “God is love.” It would be a disservice to surmise that love is merely a thing — even a complex, abstract thing. But it’s equally shortsighted to measure love by our actions, too.
Rather, we should acknowledge that love often exists in places where our actions indicate otherwise, painful though this may be. It’s long past time to admit that love is far more complex than a pat catchphrase, and that, like Sam, we are novices wading into worthwhile but murky waters. Perhaps this is the only way to love honorably — with our eyes wide open to our own failings.