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‘Atypical’ review: Netflix breaks barriers with comedy about autism

This heartfelt comedy follows Sam, a teenager on the autism spectrum, who has decided he is ready for romance. (Credit: Netflix)

THE SERIES “Atypical”

WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist, “United States of Tara”) is an 18-year-old high-school senior with autism, struggling to understand the world around him — especially girls. He has help, from a devoted sister, high-school track star Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), mother Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and father Doug (Michael Rapaport) — as well as best friend and cutup, Zahid (Nik Dodani), who works with him at a local electronics store. Sam wants to start dating, and soon enough Paige (Jenna Boyd) comes into his life. This 8-parter was created by Robia Rashid, co-executive producer of ABC’s “The Goldbergs.”

MY SAY “Atypical autism” was a term once used to describe children with mild forms of autism, but in 2013, that, along with other so-called “subsets,” was collapsed into just one catchall phrase: autism spectrum disorder. Sam has ASD, but for the purposes of this show — or at least its title — “atypical” remains. The title’s a good one, the word even better in this context, and vague enough to indicate that it doesn’t refer just to Sam.

The famous opening line from “Anna Karenina” echoes here: Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, with the Gardners as a case in point. Elsa is frantic to the point of self-paralysis over the looming prospect of Sam’s future. Doug has unresolved guilt over abandoning his family years earlier. As Sam’s self-appointed guardian and protector, Casey initially represses her own needs in the service of his.

Sam, meanwhile, obsesses over Antarctica and especially over penguins. In them he imagines an idealized version of the human race, or of himself. They “mate for life,” he explains, have no emotions, and are at peace in the frozen waste. “Sometimes when I’m alone,” Sam says in voice-over, “I imagine myself in that ice, frozen, unable to move, but safe.” Then he starts thinking about girls and the ice starts to melt.

“Atypical” could easily be a drama, but like ABC’s “Speechless” pursued the more daring option, also the trickier one. Laugh at Sam and of course the entire show disintegrates. Laugh with him and it trivializes his disorder. Instead, “Atypical” threads itself around and through that word “atypical.” “Dude, nobody’s normal,” Casey’s boyfriend pragmatically observes, and in a phrase almost nearly turns Sam into just another quirky member of a quirky species. Almost.

Nevertheless, comedy’s harder than drama, and especially hard when the subject happens to be autism. Elsa submits to a self-destructive act that threatens to turn this into the tragedy it sometimes wants to be (and may well become in the second season). The opening episode is strongest, but one or two subsequent ones almost make “Atypical” into just another feel-good family sitcom. Its tone can be inconsistent.

With a couple of actors’ actors — Leigh and Rapaport — and Gilchrist at the helm, “Atypical” still manages to mostly stay on track. It’s a good newcomer with the potential to get better.

BOTTOM LINE Great cast, strong opening episode for this mostly good newcomer.

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