Autism experts like to say that if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. The autism spectrum is so wide and broad that each case presents itself with snowflake-like uniqueness. You can find two people who are at roughly the same level of functioning with their autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, yet their personalities and ways of functioning will present so differently as to feel like they have wildly different diagnoses.
Television has tended to paint with a broader brush when it comes to characters with autism. For a long time, when the small screen featured ASD, it was represented in the form of individuals with tenuous connections at best to the real world, like young Tommy Westphall on St. Elsewhere, who was revealed in that show’s finale to have imagined the entire series while staring at his favorite snow globe all day, every day. The mid- to late-2000s, meanwhile, brought a spate of characters — like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory, Abed on Community, and Temperance on Bones — who all clearly had autism, even if none of their shows felt comfortable outright diagnosing them, which manifested itself in a blend of intense focus on one interest and extreme difficulty socializing outside of that interest. And even the shows that explicitly identified characters as autistic tended to hire neurotypical actors to play them, like Diane Kruger as Sonya Cross on The Bridge or Max Burkholder as Max Braverman on Parenthood.
Amazon’s new dramedy As We See It focuses on a trio of young adults with autism: cranky Jack (Rick Glassman), love-starved Violet (Sue Ann Pien), and good-natured but fearful Harrison (Albert Rutecki). Their families have chipped in to help pay for an apartment in Los Angeles that they share, and for the work of behavioral aide Mandy (Sosie Bacon), who helps coach them through the various obstacles created by their ASD. Jack, who has a job as a computer programmer for a publishing company, is the highest-functioning, and is dismayed in one episode to discover that he can’t actually pass as neurotypical. The childlike, sensitive Harrison, meanwhile, can’t even leave the apartment building without lots of coaching and encouragement from Mandy. Violet, who works at Arby’s and assumes every person who shows her the slightest bit of kindness is her new best friend — or, in some cases, boyfriend — falls somewhere in between. All have strengths and weaknesses in terms of how they interact with the outside world and each other, some of them overlapping and some not at all.
The mere fact of Jack, Violet, and Harrison all existing at the center of this show instantly turns them into individual and distinct characters, rather than symbolic representatives of a group for whom no one person could possibly represent. And they are characters at the center of a very sweet, likable, and ultimately honest show.
The three are, in fact, played by actors who themselves identify as being on the spectrum. And the show was adapted (from an Israeli series called On the Spectrum) by Friday Night Lights and Parenthood showrunner Jason Katims, whose son is on the spectrum. Katims previously put a lot of his own life into the relationship between Max Braverman and his parents; now that his son is in his early twenties, that level of specificity informs a lot of what’s happening throughout As We See It.
The three roommates have known each other since childhood, but have little in common beyond their diagnoses and all the time spent together. Their stories are frequently separate but periodically intersect, like when Jack’s fixation on getting a new Roomba winds up helping Violet cope with a romantic disappointment, or when Violet’s impending birthday party sends Harrison on a crosstown journey in search of a plus-one. Katims and the rest of the creative team are very smart at parceling out scenes where one or more of the roommates is getting along at the same time, not only to enhance those occasional dramatic feel-good moments, but to allow the presence of one of them to add plausible levity to a moment that’s emotionally difficult for another of them.
Be prepared for a lot of difficult — or, at times, merely stressful — moments, as dates, friendships, and professional opportunities can and do go awry constantly, often for reasons our heroes don’t quite understand even as they’re happening. (Violet’s fumbling quest for love — or at least sex — tended to give me the most sympathy anxiety, but you may find yourself squirming more at the travails of Harrison and/or Jack.) These scenes are not always easy to sit through, but they never feel gratuitous or mean. And Glassman, Pien, and Rutecki play them openly and honestly, so that it’s easier to understand the pain and confusion when things inevitably don’t go as easily for their characters as they would expect. This, in turn, makes the moments where things do work out — whether for them as individuals or as an unlikely group of friends — ringer louder and more satisfyingly than if it were smooth sailing until those points. (Have tissues handy for a sequence in the seventh episode involving Barbra Streisand’s The Way We Were — even though the scene is about one character’s difficulty crying.)
Because the roommates don’t always feel close to one another, the bonds tend to be stronger between members of their respective families. Jack’s father Lou (Joe Mantegna) and Violet’s older brother Van (Chris Pang), for instance, have been through all the wars together and understand the challenges their loved ones — and one another — face better than Jack, Violet, and Harrison themselves do. But that perspective cuts both ways. We see how exasperating Van finds Violet’s impact on his dating life, but we also see that he can be more controlling of her own attempts to find love than she deserves, despite her naivete. And when Lou is diagnosed with cancer, the story is as much about Jack trying to rise to the challenge of being his caregiver as it is about Lou’s fear for what Jack’s life will be like without a parent to look out for him(*).
(*) There’s also a subplot about Jack growing close with Lou’s Nigerian-born nurse Ewatomi (Délé Ogundiran), in which the show’s ability to look at situations from all perspectives stumbles a bit. Ogundiran is very good, and Ewatomi is portrayed as quite empathetic towards Jack even when he’s being a jerk to her. But the story is almost entirely about how he feels about her and not vice versa.
Mandy, meanwhile, is not an official member of the family, but finds herself similarly torn between doing what she can for her charges — who accept her as an authority figure even though she’s slightly younger than them — and pursuing her own desires. Bacon finds the right balance between making Mandy seem kind and outright saintly, and she serves effectively as connective tissue between the various stories.
Fed up at one point with being defined by his ASD, Jack vents, “You say I’m unique. I don’t want to be unique. I just want to be a normal fucking guy!” Later, a friend of Violet’s asks, “What’s the big deal about normal?” As We See It gently and smartly suggests that Jack, Violet, and Harrison’s lives, and their problems, are just as normal and messy as everyone else’s, even as they’re just as unique as any other human being is from one another.
All eight episodes of As We See It will premiere on Amazon Prime Video on Jan. 21. I’ve seen the whole season.