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John Doyle: Netflix’s Atypical is a grown-up dramedy about autism

Another week, another launch of a new Netflix series. This weekend, it's the superhero-posse show The Defenders, a Marvel Comics thing with lame quips and ludicrously staged posterior kicking of no-goodniks.

Previous Marvel-inspired series have concentrated on one hero figure, most notably and successfully, Jessica Jones, marvellously played with humour and pathos by Krysten Ritter. The character is part of the posse in this one but another season of Jessica Jones would make more sense, as it had an adult sensibility, while The Defenders is all silliness and childish shenanigans. It isn't a grown-up drama.

Atypical (also new on Netflix) is most definitely grown-up and certainly worth your attention. It's funny, wise, sometimes a bit wobbly in tone but always charming. At eight half-hour episodes, it's a delightful experience.

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When it was initially promoted, Netflix used the question, "What does it really mean to be normal?" as a tagline for the series. See, the show's central character is Sam (Keir Gilchrist), an 18-year-old high school senior who is on the autism spectrum, and much of the drama and comedy is anchored in Sam's innate need to have "normal" experiences now that he's 18. He wants to date a girl. He wants to understand the high-school hierarchy of cool kids, nerds and mean kids. He wants to think about a career.

Around him – and this is what lifts the level of quality in the show – his family is trying to figure out how to help and deal with a more mature Sam. His mom, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is wonderful, in full-throated possession of the character), is a bit frightened – she's been, essentially, a caregiver and deeply protective of Sam. As soon as Sam announces he thinks he should start dating, mom reverts to the nervous parent, saying, "Every time the phone rings, I jump. Maybe he crossed the street with his eyes closed again." In a way, what Atypical is about is everybody letting go of the idea of Sam as a delicate creature to be coddled.

Sam is an utterly compelling figure. Keir Gilchrist is sublime as the volatile teenager who is aware of his limitations, hyper aware that he's more grown-up now and driven to have the usual teenage experiences, no matter how awkwardly they might unfold for him. His sister, Casey (the wonderful Brigette Lundy-Paine, doing a star-making turn here), is both protective and sharply sarcastic. It takes a while for it to become clear that Casey is a fine athlete and hoping for a college scholarship but her achievements and ambitions have always taken second place to her brother's well-being. Sam's dad (Michael Rapaport) is a man who knows that he, too, has taken second place in his wife's affections but he senses that Sam's reaching for adulthood is good for the entire family. But perhaps, as we see, it isn't.

In the early episodes, there is much wry humour derived from Sam's rather tortured attempts to have those "normal" teenage adventures. And this is where the show can be both strangely affecting and funny but in a way that might unsettle some viewers. Sam's odd tics and his blurting of the obvious is both the source of humour and is a request for understanding from the viewers. This kid is weird and, yes, his weirdness is funny, but when you laugh you are asked to recognize that, in the full spectrum of human behaviour and experience, he's not that weird at all.

It's true that Sam fails to understand social cues and is very literal. He has his obsessions – a formidably energetic interest in Antarctica and the Arctic, along with the wildlife there, especially penguins. Yet this obsession emerges as an unlikely strength, a kind of lyricism. In a voiceover, he says, "I think all girls are pretty in their own way. Like a snowflake in a seasonal Arctic storm."

The dates that Sam attempts to have with young women his own age are, at first, disastrous and hilarious. The temptation to resist laughter and feel compassion is then assuaged by the experiences of others – his mom is embarrassingly tipsy in a bar; his sister trying to stave off the attention of a hunky local guy who is weirdly persistent in his crush. See, if Sam is to be perceived as abnormal, then look at yourself and your life and explain how closely you align with what is perceived as "normal."

As happens with umpteen Netflix series, Atypical sometimes feels capriciously loose. It is not plotted with exactitude but, unlike some recent Netflix series flops, it also feels driven by genuine storytelling buoyancy. It's unpredictable and all the better for it.

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Created by Robia Rashid and Seth Gordon (The Goldbergs, How I Met Your Mother), Atypical falls somewhere between a smart network show and a provocative cable series. Sam isn't a boilerplate figure and the show isn't formulaic. There is, of course, a small media fuss about how accurate the series is about the autism spectrum, but the fuss doesn't amount to much. Atypical is simply this – often achingly sweet and bold in its blunt poignancy. And it's far more rewarding than any superhero tomfoolery.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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