Netflix’s ‘Atypical’ Ends With Touching Moments and Predictable Goodbyes
“Atypical” is now one of the latest Netflix titles to get axed just as it was reaching a good stride. Charming and light, but not without heartbreak, this series about an autistic young man going through life’s stages had characters easy to like for their down-to-earth feel. The fourth and final season begins with some excellent moments and laughs, before struggling to figure out how to properly close it down. Eventually it settles for some of the go-to plot twists of any show about life in suburban America. Relationships boil down to decisions about leaving for college, graduates face whatever job prospects are available and heartfelt apologies for past wrongs are exchanged. But it’s all pulled off with sincere performances.
The season opens with Sam (Keir Gilchrist) continuing his adjustment into independent adulthood as a college student. He has decided to move into a dorm with best friend Zahid (Nik Dodani). They soon discover that being friends and living together are two different zones, with the latter bringing up cataclysmic issues like cleanliness. Back at home Sam’s sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) grapples with how to come out to dad Doug (Michael Rapaport). Mom Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) already knows Casey is dating friend Izzy (Fivel Stewart) and is more than accepting. It’s a season of big decisions as Sam’s girlfriend Paige (Jenna Boyd), searches for a job that will make her happy, which means the very real possibility of finding something that would require her to move. Sam himself is unclear about what he would even want to do after, or if he graduates.
Shows like “Atypical” always run the risk of falling into autopilot near the end of their runs. Creator Robia Rashid contributed to the diversity of representation by making Sam an obvious representative of autism, but not stereotyping him. Because of the show’s family-friendly tone there were countless “message” moments, but it also never became too preachy or overbearing on the subject. We liked Sam because anyone could relate to his insecurities and moments of decision. The first half of season four is enjoyable as it touches on the themes of independence and acceptance. Sam and Zahid take on the responsibilities of maintaining a home, but soon Sam feels the pressure of Elsa suggesting he move back in with the family. There’s always that lingering doubt in the background that being autistic, Sam might always just need extra help. Maneuvering a relationship compounds the situation with some moments of subtle tension, like when Paige gives Sam a plant for the new apartment, and later he admits he didn’t focus on taking care of it.
Because the acting is so good we can forgive “Atypical” for dropping many predictable detours and developments for its final season. It’s never easy for a showrunner to have to close up shop at such short notice. Sam gets put on academic probation but a professor (played by Sara Gilbert) saves him by giving Sam a task in one of her research projects. Casey realizes she has little to worry about and while Doug is a Gen X dad needing to get out of his comfort zone when it comes to sexuality, he still loves his daughter. Everything is simply hugged out in this show. The final episodes focus on Sam feeling the urge to travel and see different places, specifically somewhere with penguins. Paige also lands a job working in preserving habitats, which will require her to move in just a few days to another state. In “Atypical” break-ups are mean heart-tugging speeches where Sam says, “even though we are taking a break from being boyfriend and girlfriend, I will never take a break from loving you.”
Sam does pack his bags by the final episode and we assume he will get to see his beloved penguins. What he leaves behind are four enjoyable seasons of comedy and heartfelt personal drama. Despite the rise of Peak TV, it’s still ever so hard for a show to nail it fully with a final season. Even the bigger, massive productions keep disappointing in their finales. “Atypical” chooses the safe route even if it also avoids other cornier story avenues. Sam achieves a sense of moving on his own, and like most of us, he doesn’t need to achieve immense fame or power to prove himself to the world. Some of the hardest choices involve overcoming insecurities and conditions the world imposes on us. “Atypical” got this better than many other quick family dramas. Keir Gilchrist and the rest of the cast all deliver, overcoming any qualms with the writing. They have a warmth we come to associate with this kind of show, which is why it’s such good escapism. Despite the autopilot mode, “Atypical” ends on some touching notes, which might work better when we go back and revisit the whole story.
“Atypical” season four begins streaming July 9 on Netflix.