The Surprisingly Hidden Conservatism Of Atypical

Photo: Patrick Wymore/Netflix.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for Atypical season 1.
As has become a running theme on Fridays lately, there’s a new Netflix show out today — so it’s time to compare it to other, more well-known shows of its supposed ilk. Today, the streaming giant’s teen dramedy Atypical is up. The new series, about a young man on the autism spectrum, has already been compared to Netflix’s last show about teens, 13 Reasons Why. Yet, there’s one huge difference between the two high school-set digital series. While 13 Reasons delves into the decidedly feminist topics of date rape, rape culture, and the effects of sexual assault, there’s a surprising conservative bent to Atypical.
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The most obvious case for Atypical’s unexpected conservatism is how it handles the storyline of Julia Sasaki (Amy Okuda), the therapist of lead character Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist). Julia starts out in a limited role, solely acting as the voice of reason in Sam’s life and the object of the teen’s misplaced, but understandable, affection. Then, Sam breaks into his therapist’s home, starting a chain reaction that eventually leads to Julia’s boyfriend abandoning her. After a trip to the hospital for a foot injury, Julia finds out she pregnant, because what other plot-driving, tension-creating milestone could the young woman hit in her life? Interestingly, we never see Julia talk to anyone about her surprise pregnancy or consider her options, despite the fact she’s seemingly just turned 27 and is now partnerless. Normally — as Girls did — a series should at least allow a character in this situation step into a women’s clinic or say the word “abortion” out loud.
Instead, Atypical has Julia go on a route that seems shockingly regressive since the twentysomething-year-old never deliberates for a second about the pregnancy. The first time we see Julia after the pregnancy reveal, she’s calling Miles and referencing “the baby” and saying “we,” when it comes to her and the fetus growing inside of her. In finale “The Silencing Properties Of Snow,” the last thing we see in Julia’s office isn’t the woman herself, but her hand reaching for manual The Only Pregnancy Book You’ll Ever Need. The unfortunate part isn’t that Julia has accepted her unplanned pregnancy, it’s that Atypical makes it seem as though she has no other choice but to keep her baby with a terrible, unavailable partner when she very much does not.
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But, Julia’s storyline isn’t the only Atypical plot point that stealthily reinforces so-called “traditional values.” When Sam’s mom Elsa Gardner (Jennifer Jason Leigh) realizes she’s fed up with her life as “just a mom,” she begins an affair with a sexy bartender named Nick (Raúl Castillo). The infidelity threatens to tear the Gardner family apart, especially when daughter Casey Gardner (Brigette Lundy-Paine) accidentally stumbles upon her mom kissing Nick in a parking lot. By the end of season 1, it seems the Gardner parents could be heading to a divorce, as family patriarch Doug (Michael Rappaport) sees his daughter write, “Stop banging the bartender” on the kitchen dry-erase board. Earlier in the episode, Doug became suspicious of his wife, and this household graffiti all but confirms his worst concerns. You know who created all of this discord in a nice, white, middle-class family? A Latino. Actually, Nick, the sole obviously-coded Latino of the series.
On top of The Nick Problem, there’s also a problem with Black representation throughout Atypical. Although Casey has many friends on her track team who happen to be young Black women, they all turn on her in “The D Train To Bone Town.” With Casey considering a transfer to the prestigious Clayton Prep, her teammates — all of whom are young women of color save for one — become jealous of her opportunity. They retaliate by tricking her into trying on a winter formal dress at a store, which leaves her possessions unprotected. With Casey in the dressing room, they gleefully abscond with all of her clothing. The leaders of the pack are a Black girl with full, beautiful natural curls and hoops and Casey’s best friend, who has box braids. Yes, even Casey’s Black best friend turned on her. So, the image is of a bunch of jealous young women of color stealing a nice white child’s clothing, while she looks on absolutely dejected, all because she gets something they don’t.
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At the same time the mostly-Black group runs off with Casey’s clothing, the Black mother of one of the girls attempts to block a silent winter formal from occurring, despite the fact it would allow students with autism to enjoy the event. She does this solely out of spite over Casey’s possible transfer to Clayton. That means the sole outspoken Black PTA mom is trying to keep white children with disorders from enjoying things like dancing. While I’m glad Atypical attempted to include people of color in their series, the majority of their roles shouldn’t be villainous. Even the Asian-American character Julia, who is usually the sanest person in the series, is treated like a bad guy by the finale, with Doug screaming at the therapist in front of her office.
And, in case you were wondering if the complex gender mores of today get a pass in Atypical, they do not. The Gardners invite Doug’s co-worker Chuck (Karl T. Wright, one of the only Black men with a speaking role) to dinner. During the carnitas fiesta (Elsa’s words, not mine), the subject of gender-neutral baby names comes up. Absolutely no one is a fan. After Doug’s wife Donna (Karly Rothenberg) criticizes her granddaughter’s not-obviously-feminine name, Charlie, she balks at the new trend of gender-neutral names. Elsa and Doug reveal a kindergarten classmate of Casey’s was named “Key.” The next question is obviously, “Is that a boy or a girl?” The Doug answers with a laugh, “We weren’t sure for the first few months,” because the possibility of a gender neutral childhood is hilarious.
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Atypical makes a lot of amazing, important strides by telling the full story of a teenager with autism. For once, his life isn’t played for laughs and no one looks at his behavior as “weird” or “quirky.” It would be great if the series could be equally as inclusive to other underrepresented groups and experiences too.
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