The fourth and the final season of Atypical works like a balm for all those who are yet to come to terms with personal setbacks
It's a bitter-sweet feeling to bid goodbye to a show with characters so rooted in reality like family and have grown on you across seasons. The sendoffs, inevitably, are the hardest to pull off for a show creator, more so with Robia Rashid's Atypical where the writing and the character progression have been so flawlessly fluid in each of the earlier (three) seasons. It turns out that the creator's victorious march continues with the finale that is entertainingly packaged like a sugar-coated pill, more so as a balm to all those who've dreamt, failed and rediscovered their appetite for life.
The title, Atypical, can be easily mistaken as a reference to the show's autistic protagonist Sam Gardner but only suggests how unique and different each of us, our journeys and struggles are. The show sees the world through the eyes of Gardners - an urban family of four including Elsa, Doug and the siblings Casey, Sam. Both the kids are late teenagers grappling with harsh truths of the world, balancing their time between passions, pressures and fluctuating relationships with their partners. Meanwhile, Elsa and Doug are finally trying to enjoy the fruits of longevity in marriage.
Sam, beyond his obsession for Antarctica and penguins, is trying to find his true calling and discover the many joys and challenges of independence. Casey, the athlete, while coming to terms with her sexuality, is increasingly burdened by the pressure of having to make it to UCLA through the sports quota. Doug is struggling to deal with the loss of a loved one in his life and needs to bear the brunt of his fluctuating tempers with his family. Elsa is making peace with the monotony in her marriage, accepting her difficult childhood and parenting two difficult yet loveable children.
One of the most significant takeaways from Atypical this season is how it doesn't romanticise teenage years and showcases the messiness of early adulthood in all its hues - the many anxieties, the wavering focus, the soul-crushing heartbreaks and the conflicts with worldly realities. It normalises personal/professional setbacks, discusses the burden of making a career out of your passions and why pushing yourself too hard to accomplish your dreams may not be the best idea after all.
For instance, all hell breaks loose when Casey is no longer motivated to follow her passion -running- and fails to deliver in what's the most crucial hour of her academic career. Running made her feel alive at a point but later, she crumbles under the pressure of utilising her skill to reach a finite goal. Sam is a natural at art, finds it cathartic too, though he is uninspired to use his artworks to make money to fund his trip to Antarctica. Atypical has many scenarios where the characters realise the importance of seeking joy from what they excel at.
While not diluting the characters' traumas, Atypical's treatment still has a feather-like lightness, comprising a few flashy, entertaining stretches that work like a dream. The love-hate-love chemistry between Sam and Zahid as roommates, the uneasiness between Casey and (Sam's girlfriend) Paige and how the former tries to boss over the other, Paige's changing equation with her boss, is slightly over-the-top but also even out the darker dimensions of the season smoothly. The free-wheeling conversations between Sam and his adopted penguin Stumpy are a delight to watch for the innocence in the writing.
The character arcs of the parents are less colourful although they anchor the narrative. As the teenagers in the story get all jittery for frivolous reasons dealing with relationships, it's beautiful how Elsa and Doug forgive, accept each other fully and relook at their marriage in a new light at a time they could've gone in different directions. Doug's inability to grieve the loss of his friend effectively is another stretch that plays out masterfully. Yet, one feels the all-too-rosy turn to the equation between Elsa and her mother doesn't add much juice to the storytelling.
The plot device to weave a parallel between Izzie's (Casey's girlfriend) dysfunctional upbringing and Elsa's past too feels more convenient than realistic. The sudden twist to the life of a pivotal character in the latter part of the season (having to deal with a terminal disease) appears more like an afterthought and doesn't organically fit into the narrative. However, much like before, the brother-sister dynamic between Sam and Casey hits home, even as they never openly express how much they care for each other, still find joy in their petty fights and be each other's support system during their lows.
It's inconsequential if Sam and Casey accomplish their dreams finally; the story here is that they know themselves well now and that they can adapt to any given situation. It shifts its tones with admirable ease discusses the most complex of issues with uncanny simplicity. Atypical is relatable, funny, thought-provoking, reflective, emotional, inclusive and everything else under the sun.
Atypical, beyond the surreal writing, has benefited immensely from its terrific casting decisions. Most of the actors feel so much at home with their parts, more so those completing Gardner's family. From Jennifer Jason Leigh to Keir Gilchrist to Brigete Lundy and Michael Rapaport, it's admirable how they work together as a unit and still find scope to shine individually. Jenna Boyd as the hysterical teenager Paige, Nik Dodani in the shoes of a sex addict friend of Sam and Fivel Stiwart playing Casey's girlfriend get well-established characters who add drama to the lives of the lead characters.
On the whole, season four works better like an extension piece to the other three seasons more than a standalone instalment. Viewers can savour it best and marvel at its depth when all the dots connect across multiple seasons. If one had to summarise this season in one sentence, Atypical would read something like 'it's okay to mess up and start from scratch.'