Tuesday, September 4, 2018

TV REVIEW: Netflix's 'Atypical' - Season 2

Netflix's Atypical returns with its 10-episode second season on Friday, September 7. The new season stars Jennifer Jason Leigh, Keir Gilchrist, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Amy Okuda and Michael Rapaport.

Read on for my thoughts on the new season after screening all ten episodes.

Change is inevitable. That's the lesson that Sam learns again and again during the second season of Atypical. Right now, Sam's life feels like it has these giant holes in it that represent significant departures from the way he has always lived his life. Casey has transferred to an elite private school on a track scholarship. Doug has learned about Elsa's affair which leads to them being uncertain if this is a marriage worth saving. Julia is no longer Sam's therapist after her outburst following his grand confession of love. And Paige doesn't know if she wants to return to the same kind of relationship she previously had with Sam. As such, it's a lot of turmoil to put the main character through during the second season. Of course, there's also the resounding comfort of things not changing too much either. Casey's new school being an hour away isn't as big a deal as it was played to be in the first season. She is just as involved with her family and Evan during the new episodes. Meanwhile, a convenient plot device is used to keep Doug and Elsa in the same household even though they no longer feel comfortable being a couple. Everyone is still trying to keep things as stable and familiar for Sam. But the narrative also understands the value in pushing him forward. The premiere is all about simply replacing these relationships with new ones for him. And yet, the story finds a nice way to evolve that appreciates all of the characters while feeling more relaxed and confident. The show doesn't make a significant uptick in quality during its second season. But the audience can also easily tell that this creative team knows exactly what it's doing. This is the show they are interested in making. As such, the audience simply has to be along for the journey to see how the Gardner family develops.

Sam continues to see how much change he is comfortable with in his life. It's a journey that does get repetitive after awhile too. Someone in his life makes a suggestion. And then, he suddenly needs to confront his parents about allowing him to do something. As such, he explores things like getting his own bank account, sleeping over at a friend's house and possibly going to college. That last one is actually a huge topic throughout this season. The episodes are set during his final semester of senior year in high school. The story pretty much picks up immediately where the first season left off with the aftermath of the winter formal where Doug came home to see the message Casey wrote about Elsa's affair on the whiteboard. And so, everyone is dealing with the change that comes from that. But Sam is also interested in what the moment in the igloo means for his future with Paige. Meanwhile, his new guidance counselor - played by Happy Endings alum Casey Wilson - introduces the idea of college. That actually is a rather interesting conversation over the course of the season. Sam never planned on leaving home to attend college. And yet, he's also starting to realize that that was the decision his mother made for him because she didn't want him getting too independent and possibly getting hurt. As such, she is learning how to let go and actually see him grow in the world by making these decisions for his life. The final answer that the season gives about Sam's future and his career is actually pretty inspired as well. It's clear that he is going to have a very fulfilling life. Once again, Keir Gilchrist is very compelling with his central performance.

Sam remains the main character throughout all of this as well. Everything is still mostly filtered through the way he is experiencing the world with his family members also getting their respective stories. This cast remains strong from top to bottom. In fact, it's easier to appreciate what Jennifer Jason Leigh is doing in this role now that she's no longer trapped in a baffling story where she's cheating on her husband for some reason. Now, the show can actually dig deeper into Doug and Elsa's failings when it comes to their family and marriage. They both got comfortable in certain roles over the years. And now, they are realizing that they have to step up and change. It's beneficial for themselves and their children. They can't just be making these changes in order to get back together. They have to do it for so much more than that. Even then, it may not be enough. The show plays the realities of their uncertain marriage very well. Again, it's contrived how the show gets both of them leaving together in the same house for the majority of the season. That allows plenty of moments where Elsa foolishly believes that everything is fixed only for Doug to push her away again. No easy answers or solutions are given to this conflict either. That's the main definer of this story as well. It takes actual effort to improve things. Sam is learning how to better communicate his needs to the world around him. His family is learning that they have to do the same exact thing too. That is a fascinating journey because it's often played as if Sam is making more progress than the other people in his life who are frequently stuck in the same positions and conflicts.

Of course, it's continuously curious that Amy Okuda remains a series regular in the new season. Julia is no longer acting as Sam's official therapist. They still interact occasionally - especially when Sam's parents don't know what he's doing. And yet, Julia no longer has a strong connection to anyone in the Gardner family. As such, it's always a little random whenever the show cuts away to her and her struggles. She is pregnant and received a marriage proposal. That means the show felt responsibility in telling the audience how those details were resolved. However, that's something that easily could have been summed up in an episodic guest spot. Instead, it's dragged out more which a little too unnecessary. She is no longer an important component of the show. Sam has found a new way to get the therapy he needs which is a surprise that I will leave up to the audience to discover on their own. So, there's no reason for Okuda to remain a regular. That's especially true considering Graham Rogers, Nik Dodani and Jenna Boyd continue to appear in virtually every episode despite only be recurring cast members. Their characters have much more importance in the second season even though Evan, Zahid and Paige don't get a whole lot more depth. They are joined by a number of new characters who allow for more complex relationships as well. The entire season is treated as one big learning experience for everyone in the family. That does include these close friends and family members. Atypical may not be breaking the formula of the stories that it tells. But it also does a fairly strong job in telling them about a family that needs to be seen depicted in television with more frequency.