In most ways, Atypical, which premieres August 11 on Netflix, is a great show. It depicts the reality of being a person with autism, as well as what it's like to have a family member on the spectrum. And the show isn't afraid to dive into deeper topics, too — namely, what it's like for those with autism to date and search for love.
Keir Gilchrist's performance as Sam is phenomenal; he brings an incredible amount of heart to the role. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Rapaport, and Brigette Lundy-Paine are just as great as his mom, dad, and sister. And Atypical really would be perfect — if it didn't fall into the disappointing infidelity stereotype.
Over the course of the show's eight episodes, we learn how Sam's autism affects his family members, in addition to how it affects him. For Elsa (Leigh), being a mom to someone on the spectrum has, essentially, consumed her identity. Elsa doesn't have a job outside the home; her days are filled with tasks like baking lemon bars for the autism support group she attends with other parents. But now that Sam is 18, he wants to be more independent, leaving Elsa in an identity crisis.
The "saintly mom" is a trope that's also a throwback to gender-stereotyped roles. As much as Elsa is a compelling and sympathetic character, we don't learn much about who she is or what she likes, outside of her relationship to her family members. Elsa has devoted her life to her family; she was there for both of her kids when Doug (Rapaport) walked out. It's totally believable that Elsa would have lost her sense of self — for years, she's defined herself by her relationship to other people. But it's not believable that she would have tried to fix that fact by having an affair with local bartender Nick (Raul Castillo).
Yes, plenty of people cheat on their spouses in real life. But in Atypical, the affair storyline just felt off. It's clear that Elsa really does love her husband. Doug is more attentive to both of his children's needs than ever, and there are plenty of tender moments between the two of them.
That makes the ongoing affair all the more baffling. Elsa continues seeing Nick even after Doug starts spending more time with Sam and goes with her to the parents' support group. And the reason she chooses to end the affair isn't because of Doug at all. It's only when Nick admits that he's getting too attached that Elsa decides to call it off.
It's clear that the Atypical writers wanted to humanize Elsa with this storyline. Like anyone else, she has flaws, and the affair takes her beyond the "perfect mom" persona. But there are so many other ways Elsa could have found herself — making her character have an affair felt like the easy way out.
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