Coming amidst the latest cycle of Netflix originals, Atypical is a comedy by The Goldbergs duo, Robia Rashid and Seth Gordon, following protagonist Sam Gardner’s attempts to find love during his last year of high school. It’s the setup you’d expect of your average coming-of-age comedy, except the main character’s autism makes the nonverbal planes of romance much more difficult to navigate. Yet, perhaps the most unfortunate thing about Atypical as an exploration of such difficulties is autism seems as much an obstacle for the series itself, as it does for the 18 year-old’s love life.

Some have described Atypical as an attempt to normalise autism. Had the coming of age setup been used inventively to challenge certain misconceptions of autism as literal-mindedness, social ineptitude or lack of imagination, it could not only carry potential as the quirky teen comedy it appears to be entertaining, but a way of emphasising the variegated nature of the spectrum that all too often falls by the wayside.

But the further I pushed through the show’s eight episodes, the more apparent it became ‘attempt’ was really all the show ever did. Atypical may try to ‘normalise autism’, but what it ends up doing is closer to spouting up the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, than constructing a character arc that is in any way believable, or particularly interesting.

I wouldn’t say Atypical strives to insult people on the spectrum. In fact, it seems so over-concerned with not causing offence that it makes no attempt to offer a fresh take on what it means to be an autistic teenager, in preference of an unwavering adherence to well-worn behavioural tropes. Though realised with physical subtlety by Keir Gilchrist, Sam feels ultimately a conflation of various diagnostic criteria: he speaks in a methodical tone of voice, misses social cues and thinks in very literal terms.
He also expresses an obsessive interest in the Arctic, and regularly engages in lengthy descriptions of penguins to anyone who will (and often those who won’t) listen. The show’s creators seem so desperate to contextualise all of these behaviours ‘as autism’ that it leaves little room for the character to develop any nuance past his diagnosis. The most obvious example is one of the earliest: we see Sam continually plucking at an elastic band between his forefinger and thumb, before being told this represents the ‘self-stimulatory’ behaviour also characterised within the medical field. It’s an explanation that feels needless atop the checklist of other obvious autistic traits.

Jennifer Jason Lee plays the quintessential bubble-wrap-mom, whose obsession with stimulatory needs, facial expression charts and desperation to keep her son safe from the world of nonverbal communication feels like an embodiment of every other overbearing mother stereotype. Jason Lee does attempt a genuinely poignant performance of trying to remain ‘useful’ but the script does not permit the depth she strives for.

Brigette Lundy-Paine brings some much-needed vigour to family exchanges about school, grades and the opposite sex, but once the smirk-ery of her high school punch-ups and sharp-witted comebacks subsides, she soon lapses into an angsty reference point for what ‘normal teen behaviour’ looks like. On the one hand, it adds dynamism to the siblings’ relationship (the sparring between Sam’s honest observations and Casey’s ill-interpreted sarcasm are amongst the show’s funniest – and occasionally rather touching – moments), but it’s always deftly apparent that that dynamism comes from a pairing between capable and incapable. Normal and not-normal. Again, we’ve been here before. Knock Knock Knock Penny.

There are many moments – especially during the first few episodes – where you could effectively swap Sam with Sheldon Cooper without changing the script. Often, entire scenes offer the impression of The Big Bang Theory fanfiction; whether it’s Sam discussing his intentions to ‘test’ his date on her knowledge of computer hardware, or dividing the actions of his companions into a tangible pro’s and con’s list. There’s even a smiling joke that appears to have been taken right out of Season 1 of the runaway CBS show.

The show problematically appears to suggest (with the exception of maybe Casey and her parents) we are all in on some kind of joke at Sam’s expense. Now, if the viewer had also been excluded from this joke, the effect could have really benefitted a more empathetic relationship between the viewer and Sam, but the script appears instead to envelope Gilchrist with eyebrow-raises giving the constant feeling that we know something Sam doesn’t. The numerous reflective sequences in which Sam explains his thought processes in voiceover do aim to remedy this distance, but in the wake of more creative tales like Mary and Max – which detailed its protagonist’s social strategies with hilariously visual flair – I’d much rather the series found an inventive way of showing those thought processes, rather than explaining them through reams of samey dialogue.

There’s much to like about The Big Bang Theory as a bingeable, easy-watch ‘geek comedy’, but the wild popularity of the Sheldon Cooper character hasn’t done wonders for expanding autistic representation in contemporary media; perhaps explaining why the show seems hesitant to officially diagnose the character. Once you categorise an apparent set of behaviours in a way that carries purchase outside tellyworld, you automatically run the risk of being called a ‘restrictive representation’ of those behaviours, because there will always be those out there whose experiences contrast heavily to what’s on screen. As such, steering clear of categories, diagnoses and labels renders the show enjoyable as a comedy about social ineptitudes and quirks that claim only to represent the fictional characters they reside within. Atypical ends up rethreading the archetype popularised by Jim Parsons ten years (blimey) prior while including such labels, then, leaves it feeling tired and uninventive.

I’m not necessarily saying Atypical shouldn’t exist. The portrayal of autism absolutely has a place in contemporary television, and the ever-strengthening prevalence of night-time Netflix bingery in the UK hints at the power the streaming service has as a platform for making it available to mass audiences. But following recent, more refreshing takes not only on the spectrum, but the advantages of being on one (see the ultra-creative pop-culture-philia of Community’s Abed), quite why Atypical chose such a typical route feels somewhat perplexing.