Dave Soltysik, Head of Media Studies and A Level Examiner
In this blog post, I’ll be exploring approaches to the new US long form television drama, Atypical, a Netflix original series produced by Sony Pictures Television that blends comedy and drama, created by Robia Rashid. The Netflix show was a hit for a variety of reasons, particularly because of its interesting representation of diversity and neurodiversity, along with the fusion of popular television genres.
The rise of streaming platforms like Netflix is a direct result of free-market capitalism and Atypical reflects how platforms compete for subscribers by creating original content to attract subscribers and generate revenue. Atypical relies on ‘big hits’, like the comedy and drama genres to pique audience interest. The show’s universal themes of identity, belonging and acceptance help it address global audiences.
Atypical’s appeal stems from its blend of genres. Rashid’s experience in sitcom writing perhaps influences the series’ comedic elements. Students can explore Neale’s genre theory and consider how the series relies on several bankable genres to ensure audience appeal.
Dr Julia Sasaki’s office provides a safe space for Sam, where he freely expresses his thoughts, emotions and experiences. Throughout the series, Sam opens up to the camera sharing the challenges he faces. The camera uses a documentary-style shot-reverse-shot to capture their faces closely which adds an element of authenticity and realism to these moments. These close-up shots also create a connection with the audience, making them feel like they are part of Sam’s therapy session.
Like Julia’s office, the Gardener’s house serves as another safe space for Sam; however it represents a stark contrast to the office in many ways. The house reveals the dynamics within the family and becomes a stage for conflicts when shared spaces like the kitchen and living room become battlegrounds for sibling rivalry or conflict between Casey and her parents.
There have been a range of critical responses to the portrayal of autism in the series. Students could explore debates around media representations of autism and responses to other media texts which feature protagonists with autism such as The Good Doctor. This article from The Guardian offers an interesting take on the representation of autism in Atypical.
Critics have raised concerns about the show’s creator and writers being primarily neurotypical and the lack of involvement from individuals on the autism spectrum during the series’ development. They argued that Sam, portrayed by Keir Gilchrist, is presented in a way that relies on stereotypes of autism and which overlooks the unique experiences of autistic people. Additionally some felt that the show predominantly focused on high-functioning autism through Sam's character while neglecting representation of individuals with more significant needs.
On the other hand, some critics have suggested that despite the use of stereotypes in depicting autism, there is an element of authenticity in how this representation was constructed. A study conducted by the School of Behavioural and Health Sciences at the Australian Catholic University indicates that although there may be stereotypes, there are educational benefits for neurotypical audiences in gaining an understanding of autism through Sam’s character.
The are a range of representations of characters on offer in Atypical. As David Gauntlett suggests, this allows the audience to ‘pick and mix’ from the representations to shape their own identities. Students should consider how feminist, postcolonial and intersectional approaches and theories can be applied, as well as the extent to which the representations are stereotypical/anti-stereotypical or perhaps tokenistic.
A good starting point is to explore how Sam has been represented as an autistic male. Sam’s portrayal as a neurodivergent individual with auditory hypersensitivity is constructed through his costume, the mise-en-scene of his bedroom and Keir Gilchrist’s performance. We often see Sam wearing noise cancelling headphones that help him manage sensory experiences. As the main narrative arc progresses, we witness Sam's journey of trying to understand how to find a girlfriend. He observes those around him and turns to internet research for guidance. You can also consider Sam’s extensive knowledge of Antarctica in his voice over; he frequently delves into specific details, historical facts, and scientific aspects of the continent - consider how this representation of hyperfocus relates to the portrayal of autism.
You could also consider the representation of the parents. Elsa is constructed as an overprotective and underappreciated stay-at-home mum, consumed by caring for Sam. Elsa also has her own narrative arc developing throughout the series as she seeks a way to escape the stresses of her life and marriage. Doug is initially portrayed as struggling with his relationship with Sam, but as the series develops, he is depicted as a supportive father who genuinely cares for his family’s well-being. Doug is also represented as the main breadwinner of the household, working as a paramedic.
Casey is portrayed as a protective younger sister always defending Sam from others at school. Throughout the series there are scenes where Sam is laughed at and teased by his peers due to his struggles. The show uses media language like slow motion editing, muffled diegetic sound of chatter and extreme close-up shots to depict Sam's experience at school, highlighting the sensory challenges he faces. In episode 1 we also see Casey standing up for what’s right by confronting bullies who insult Evan’s sister, Beth. Despite their differing perspectives on situations, Casey and Sam share a close bond that goes beyond her protective nature.
I hope this blog has offered some initial approaches to teaching Atypical. For more ideas, you can download the OCR LFTV Drama Teacher Guide which you can find on Teach Cambridge.
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Dave Soltysik is Head of Media Studies in a large comprehensive secondary school and sixth form in Hertfordshire. He is an A Level and GCSE examiner and moderator. Dave is passionate about exploring innovative, fresh and relevant approaches to teaching Media Studies and ensuring that it remains a vital part of the curriculum.