Atypical season three is formulaic but fun

Netflix's coming-of-age story keeps up consistency

Netflix's third season of Atypical hits all the right notes once again.
Credit: 
Screenshot from Netflix

Atypical is an underappreciated gem from Netflix’s roster of original content. The show quietly dropped its third season on Nov. 1, and if you’ve seen the first two seasons, you’ll know exactly what you’re in for—but that’s not a bad thing.

Like other coming-of-age dramas, this show follows a teenager’s journey through the difficulties of high school and all the awkward hilarity that ensues.  

However, Atypical’s twistis that its protagonist, Sam Gardner, is on the autism spectrum. This poses its own unique set of challenges on top of the already-difficult process of growing up.  

In this new season, Sam enters his freshman year of college, but what should be an exciting period of freedom leaves him terrified that he’ll become one of the “four out of five” autistic students who doesn’t graduate within four years.

Sam is a classic example of the type of wide-eyed innocent character that audiences instantly latch onto. Although the show commendably teaches its viewers more about autism, the disorder is also used as a lens through which to examine some universal themes of life.

“He’s so honest,” Keir Gilchrist, who portrays Sam, told The Mighty in a recent interview. “It makes him very relatable because he says exactly how he feels about the things around him. That’s one way he’s so accessible to a lot of people.”

It’s a show about the struggles of not fitting in, about confronting change, and about navigating dysfunctional relationships between family and friends.

This is well-tread territory within the coming-of-age genre and within the show itself, which begins to lean into some of the same plot points that marked its first two seasons.

Atypical features other familiar tropes, like the quirky teen character, quippy dialogue, the over-protective mother coming to terms with being needed less, and the sensitive father trying to understand his son.

These elements are tried and true for a reason, and they work nicely here, especially given how talented and likable the entire main cast is.

It’s also important to mention these actors have excellent chemistry. The Gardners feel like a real family, and most of the other relationships (whether romantic or not) feel real too, which makes everyone’s interactions fun to watch.

For that same reason, it’s genuinely sad when the characters fight. The show’s tragic moments manage to be gut-wrenching without devolving into soapy melodrama.

One weak point of this series is that some of its themes are spelled out almost too clearly for the audience.

For example, in season three episode two, Sam’s mother Elsa almost kills a plant by over-watering it. When a friend tells her that it’ll recover if she leaves it alone, Elsa says, “Leaving things alone isn’t exactly my strength,” paralleling how she must take a step back from her son to allow him to grow.

It’s a clever metaphor, but it could have been handled with more subtlety—having the character state her exact motivation feels overkill.

Such concise thematic statements work better when they’re coming from Sam. The protagonist provides voiceover narration in each episode, often likening human behaviour to that of his favourite animal: the penguin.

At the end of episode six, Sam says, “Penguins live in abnormally harsh conditions and they never leave. They’re one of the few species that stays, struggles, and persevere […] which I can appreciate, because sometimes college feels like that too.”

These voiceovers offer insights into Sam’s unique way of viewing our social world. They’re brimming with inspirational aphorisms about how to adapt to the scary changes that rock our lives.

One major change (and the highlight of this season) comes from Sam’s sister Casey, who discovers she isn’t straight when she falls in love with her classmate Izzie.

While their evolving relationship is adorable, it brings Casey a lot of sorrow because she’s forced to make a choice between Izzie and her boyfriend. This love triangle is also handled authentically and never slips into soap opera territory.

When Sam accidentally witnesses Casey and Izzie kissing, Casey fears he will take issue with it. But such a thought never even occurs to Sam. Instead, he draws her a picture of Sphen and Magic, two gay penguins from Australia, with the heartfelt message, “Good Luck.”

Sam’s unassuming attitude captures the heartwarming tone of the show. In Atypical,there are no moustache-twirling villains or sensationalized plotlines—just real people and all the wonderful peculiarities that make them who they are. 

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