Nobody illustrates the precariousness of sentimental TV better than Jason Katims, perhaps because nobody does it better.
When Katims is on his game — Friday Night Lights, Parenthood — the veteran of the Edward Zwick/Marshall Herskovitz school makes shows that earn every laugh and every jerked tear. When Katims is off — Fox’s dismal Almost Family, the first half of the short-lived Rise on NBC — the results can be excruciating.
After recent detours — Almost Family still makes me angry — Katims is back on solid footing with his new Amazon half-hour As We See It, based on the Israeli format. Likely to be called a “comedy” by virtue of its half-hour running time, As We See It generates more smiles of recognition than guffaws and probably more tears as well. It’s a fundamentally big-hearted show that easily weathers some early narrative clunkiness and, by the end of its eight-episode first season, is pushing a variety of emotional buttons with confidence.
Jack (Rick Glassman), Violet (Sue Ann Pien) and Harrison (Albert Rutecki) have known each other since pre-school, but they aren’t exactly friends. They’re in their mid-20s now and, occupying different places on the autism spectrum, they share an apartment in LA’s Canoga Park neighborhood. Jack is a brilliant computer programmer whose ability to maintain a job is hampered by his inability to suffer fools. Violet works at Arby’s and flirts with the hunky delivery guy, much to the chagrin of her controlling brother Van (Chris Pang). The least independent of the trio, but with the richest parents, Harrison has daily objectives that include battling external stimuli to navigate around the block, though he’d rather watch game shows on TV. Their lives are facilitated by Mandy (Sosie Bacon), an aide whose poor MCAT scores have put her med school dreams on hold.
The word “normal” is justifiably stigmatized in disabled circles and Katims employs it here like a rapier. “Normal” is the construct to which our main characters aspire and “normal” is the weapon outside parties use to judge them and contain them, a gatekeeping slur for when other slurs are too inappropriate.
The irony that Katims is consistently playing with is that, of course, the dramatic “needs” faced by his main characters couldn’t be more “normal.” Jack worries about his father’s (Joe Mantegna) cancer and he wants a Roomba. Violet chafes under her brother’s judgment but just wants to find a boyfriend on a dating app. Harrison is stressed about changes in his family and needs a friend who appreciates his reservoir of knowledge about the American Revolution.
At the same time, autism presents challenges for each of the main characters, but not in a one-size-fits-all way. Harrison may require dark sunglasses and noise-canceling headphones to make it to the corner, but Violet can go to cacophonous nightclubs in her quest for romance. Jack may struggle with tone and social cues, but that doesn’t stop a slow-developing relationship with Ewatomi (Délé Ogundiran, excellent), a nurse working with his father’s oncologist. There’s no single autistic “symptom” and no universal “autistic reaction” to anything, and As We See It captures this truth, one sometimes being learned by viewers and the on-screen characters at the same time.
The opening episodes are at times a little methodical in how they approach the adversity faced by the characters on the spectrum and their loved ones. Each episode seems to have a quota of one experience with overt bigotry, one or two encounters of well-meaning obliviousness, and a certain mixture of difficult-to-watch meltdowns and cathartic hugs, all building over 30 minutes with Mandy at the center.
What happens, though, is that what starts out as formulaic becomes impressively cumulative and probably less dependent on Mandy — who’s barely holding it together herself — as a point of stable maturity. As it goes along, the series puts more and more of a premium on kindness stemming from situational adversity instead of noble responses to exaggerated ignorance. The series isn’t without its highly manipulative beats, but when I got sniffly, it was almost always caused by smaller instants of basic goodness and human understanding.
TV shows are slowly recognizing that the best way to represent autism is to actually represent the variety expressed by that word “spectrum,” a consciousness reflected in shows like The A Word, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay and Atypical. The latter dramedy, which ended on Netflix last year, was a favorite because of how well it used universal human failures to raise its stakes and how it built an ensemble of characters, on and off the spectrum, I wanted to protect.
Atypical was dinged for casting a neurotypical actor in the lead role, making autism into something performative. In selecting actors on the spectrum for most of its main roles, As We See It gets to prove that accurate casting isn’t a stunt. Glassman, Pien and Rutecki are great and nuanced leads, with the praise requiring no qualification at all. Glassman doesn’t compromise Jack’s antisocial tendencies, which he makes equal measures hilarious and touching. Pien’s commitment to Violet’s occasionally extreme responses can be hard to watch, but they’re all organically escalated and complemented by quieter scenes. And I hadn’t realized how good Rutecki was until the last couple episodes, which are one payoff after another for the character.
This feels like a real breakout for Bacon, whom I’d primarily noticed for her similarities to each of her high profile parents. She lays all of Mandy’s uncertainty bare and never tries to get you to excuse the character’s mistakes. She has a different chemistry with each of her three main co-stars and whether those interactions boil down to “sweet” or “weirdly funny,” they all work. Bacon and Pang are also very good with the complicated dynamic between Mandy and Van, the sort of overly pre-determined not-quite-love-story that I often hate, but which I felt As We See It made work.
As We See It finds a good balance between when it wants you to laugh and when it hopes you’re going to cry a little. Never for a second do you forget that the show is trying to make you have, as the kids say, all the feels, but the pandering and mawkishness are kept to a minimum. It doesn’t want to be revelatory, just sincere and, in that, I think it succeeds.