Sam is an 18-year-old boy who believes that he is ready to have a girlfriend. He is on the autistic spectrum with high-functioning skills, and for most of his life has been sheltered by his family, especially his mother and sister. He is obsessed with Antarctica and in particular penguins. In fact, when he experiences sensory overload, he repeats the names of the four main species of penguins found in Antarctica − Adélie, Chinstrap, Emperor, Gentoo.
Sam is quite literal − he says what he means and he believes what he hears. It is difficult for him to understand social cues. So, when he decides to find a girlfriend, he has no idea how to go about it. He also has to learn to be independent from his mother who buys his clothes, all of the same make and colour, makes decisions for him regarding his social life, etc. He also has to learn how to “mate”; for this, he turns to the world of penguins and animals to find examples of mating behaviour. Except that in the human world mating is not so straightforward and relies heavily on social cues, nonverbal signs and veiled meanings. For example, he works after school at an electronics store, and his friend Zahid who is also his manager tells him that one of the girls shopping is smiling at him and he should smile back. First of all, Sam has not even noticed that the girl is smiling at him and when he tries to smile back, it is not a natural smile – it comes across as creepy and the girl leaves the store. Or, like how when he makes a list of pros and cons about a girl, she gets offended when she reads it, but for Sam it is his way to make a decision and he is open about it.
In his keenness to get a girlfriend, Sam believes that he is in love with his therapist Julia who is probably one of the few people who understand him. Having attended therapy sessions with Julia for a while, Sam has developed a comfort level where he can speak his mind without feeling judged, has learned strategies to navigate his social life and manage emotions. He slowly becomes dependent on Julia but his mother is not pleased because being Sam’s primary caretaker had become a huge part of her identity.
As Sam is navigating his own love life, his parents Elsa and Doug, and his sister Casey are also examining their own love interests. Casey is very protective of her brother and stands up for the vulnerable in school. Elsa, Sam’s mother, feeling a little expendable due to Sam’s newfound independence, finds herself in a relationship with a bartender, Nick. She is constantly messaging Nick and sneaks to the bar and his home for quick rendezvous. She seems to get a thrill with this newfound interest as it provides a way to divert her mind and find herself. On the other hand, Doug is trying to establish a closer relationship with Sam who turns to him for guidance on how to approach girls. Doug gives Sam a few tips like gifts of chocolate-covered strawberries which Sam takes to Julia’s place. Sam enters her home through an open window whilst she is not there and when Doug realises whose home it is, he gets Sam out of there. But not without one of the strawberries falling onto the carpet and under the sofa. This snowballs into a point of conflict between Julia and her partner as Julia suspects him of having an affair and constantly nags him.
Through the eight episodes, we learn that Sam has feelings, wants to be in a relationship, gets hurt, and struggles to understand the flirting game. As Evan (Casey’s boyfriend) tells him, he is just like everyone, weird and normal at the same time. Sam’s friend Zahid is obsessed with sex and often treats women as objects. Sam makes note of Zahid’s comments and recognises that they could be hurtful. He also makes a list (like groupings of 3) to understand how to identify if he is in love with someone and crowdsources information from his friends and family. One of his classmates Paige expresses that she likes him and initially, Sam is unable to understand her cues, but Zahid helps him recognise the signs. As per the list of criteria for a love interest, Sam believes she could be the temporary girlfriend till he can have Julia as his main girlfriend. Paige is very sensitive to his needs and is patient with Sam. In fact, Paige gets everyone to change the format of the upcoming school dance to a silent one just so Sam can enjoy it and not get overwhelmed by the music. However, Sam realises he does not love Paige and at a dinner with her family, he announces in front of everyone that he is breaking up with her, which breaks her heart. He goes to Julia and insists that he loves her and when she firmly rebuffs him, he has an episode of sensory dysfunction. As his family and Zahid try to help him deal with it, Paige comes over and expresses her rage by returning his gifts and slashing a giant penguin which was supposed to be his Christmas present. It is in that moment that he realises how he has hurt Paige, just as Julia hurt his feelings. So he makes an effort to make it up to her by finding a missing penguin necklace which she had lost.
This series is an insight into autistic people’s lives, their feelings, and needs. Despite popular perception, they have empathy and they definitely want to love and to be loved. They may have different ways of communicating how they feel and may receive and process social cues differently, but there are ways we can educate ourselves and be inclusive like Paige and others do. For instance, the bus driver knows what to do when Sam is on the bus. He drives carefully and smoothly because Sam does not like to have his back touching the bus seat.
Keir Gilchrist who plays Sam is convincing in his role even though he is not autistic. However, they could have hired an autistic actor to play the role, especially as there were some who had auditioned for the part. The series itself is quite engrossing, with several comical and intense moments. There is a genuine intention to show what autistic people experience in a largely neurotypical world and help us understand their feelings better. I personally believe it was well-rounded and did not make a caricature out of Sam. In fact all the characters have their multifaceted sides and flawed personalities showcased which is how it is in reality.
To me, Season 1 of Atypical was a validation that we cannot take anything for granted from a partner. We must listen closely without judgment, try to be empathetic and be present for each other. Sam in this case seems to know when someone is upset, can read a situation without passing judgment and can express himself as he feels. His honest communication is refreshing and it is for the rest to actually make an effort to listen and accept without judgment.
Cover Image: Netflix