As a protective parent and fan of the Netflix series “Atypical,” I admit I’m not ready for Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist) to leave the nest, or for the streamer’s high-pitched and poignant drama about one. The family with autism is leaving me for good.
I’ve been watching “Atypical” since its debut in 2017, when Sam, who is at the top of the spectrum, was only 18 years old and faced the realities of every teenager’s life: dating, fighting for it, independence, impending adulthood. . The series’ fourth and final season, which began on Friday, sees Sam leave the safety of his Connecticut home and venture into a bewildered world that often seems to baffle him.
For most parents, watching their child stand up on their own is a bittersweet experience. But for those of us who have spent all of our hours helping our sons or daughters acclimate to a neurotypical world, from decoding mysterious social cues to tolerating tactile aggression from labels, clothing, to constantly being on guard against those who might try. Putting them down due to their differences, this is particularly heartbreaking and terrifying.
The final ten episodes of “Atypical” skillfully address these fears and many more, cementing the series’ legacy as one of the best series to address autism and its butterfly effect on family, patients, friends and relatives. At once hilarious and poignant, irreverent and affirming, season four aptly chronicles the final stages of Sam’s evolution toward self-determination and the South Pole.
Sam would be the first to tell him that some species of Antarctic penguins leave the nest a few weeks after they are born, and he sees their journey more as a migration than a flight. Sam has always filtered his understanding of the neurotypical world through his deep obsession with impenetrable glaciers, enigmatic marine life, and the complex social order of penguins. Surviving an inhospitable climate is a matter of adaptation.
“Unlike most animals, a penguin’s eye lens changes shape,” he explains during one of “Atypical’s many internal monologues.” “When it’s on the ground, it becomes flatter, like a human’s. When underwater, it becomes round, like that of a fish. So wherever the penguin goes, everything will be seen clearly. … Sometimes I wish I had penguin eyes. Then I could see clearly, wherever I was. “
The show’s beauty, heart, and spirit have always been focused on the depth of Sam’s unique challenges, as well as those of his family, as they navigate life on the spectrum together. Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Sam’s fiercely protective mother, would do anything to help her son, and while her move is a good thing, it sets off all her alarms. His reluctant father, Doug (Michael Rapaport), has learned to be more present, but it is an ongoing process. And her younger sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), a natural leader who took up less space because her brother asked for more, must take her place and take her destiny in hand.
The Gardners were shaped by each other, which of course is true in any family. But “Atypical” reformulates the issues of coming of age, the rigors of parenting, and the pressures exerted to maintain family cohesion by adding disability. The emotional intensity is magnified on one side with Casey and Elsa and dimmed on the other with Sam and Doug. Current ideas about selfishness and altruism are shattered. Sacrifices abound, but no one is holy. In the past, children beat each other on the kitchen floor. Parents deceived each other to escape the pressure of their home. They parted to find each other better; their cohesion was forged by fire.
Created by Robia Rashid (“How I Met Your Mother”), “Atypical” was initially criticized for not featuring artists from the spectrum. However, already in the second season, the series hired consultants like Elaine Hall from The Miracle Project and David Finch, author of the “Journal of Best Practices.” The series also brought together various disabled actors to play characters such as Jasper (Domonique Brown) and Sid (Tal Anderson), and the scenes in which the characters meet for groups of students or in the student services office. Helping people with disabilities in college have become revealing discussions about the difficulties of navigating everyday life when living on the spectrum. They are also loaded with funny moments: “What are you in control of?” Sam asks his classmate on a college survey. “Prevent tooth decay,” Jasper answers bluntly.
“Atypical” has brilliantly avoided the cuteness that has often plagued other series or movies that have attempted to dramatize autism stories or create characters with developmental disabilities. The series cuts through tension and taboo with lively humor, often bordering on cheeky, but Sam is never the butt of a joke. The risk paid off and allowed for enduring jokes that remind viewers that the Gardners are not the Cleavers. After Casey mailed her brother a handmade award – “In recognition of your utter mischief,” it read – hung on Sam’s refrigerator throughout Season 4.
I would like to award “Atypical” an award for capturing the bittersweet journey of raising a different child, a mother like Elsa who saw herself as a retaining wall between a cruel world and the world, a complex soul that is her son . And with the series finale, maybe I can loosen my grip a bit, like Elsa did, and let her journey into adulthood begin.