Old stereotypes about autistic people get trotted out again in Amazon’s blinkered new series.
While there are a lot of autistic characters in pop culture, there’s very little variety to be found. The eclectic personalities, genders, ambitions, and every other trait imaginable that exists in actual clusters of autistic individuals is absent in general pop culture. Instead, we’re either super-geniuses who function more like X-Men or childlike figures who need a neurotypical person to rescue them. If you were to go by mainstream media, autistic people were like M&Ms circa 1964: we only come in two flavors.
Despite starring three different autistic characters and game performances from the openly autistic performers tasked with portraying them, the new TV show As We See It (a remake of the Israeli TV program On the Spectrum) continues this troubling trend. Not only that, but tackling storylines largely ignored in autism-centric media, namely anything to do with sex, only creates further problems.
Jack (Rick Glassman), Harrison (Albert Rutecki), and Violet (Sue Ann Pien) are a trio of autistic individuals in their mid-20s who live in an apartment together with caregiver Mandy (Sosie Bacon). They’ve each got significant problems plaguing their lives. Jack’s dad has cancer and he’s struggling to fit in at his job. Harrison, meanwhile, is coping with a new exercise regime and the prospect of his younger sister moving away. As for Violet, she’s hankering for physical intimacy with a guy, particularly a cute vendor at her Arby’s job, much to the chagrin of her brother Van (Chris Pang).
It’s clear the intentions behind As We See It were good. Showrunner Jason Katims has been open about how his experiences with his autistic son, as well as struggles with seeing adult autism representation in American pop culture, informed his decision to do this show. Meanwhile, autistic individuals were apparently present to some degree in the writing room (though no openly autistic artists are credited as either writers or directors on any episodes). Unfortunately, these well-meaning touches can’t help the show overcome its barrage of storytelling issues.
Many of these emanate from the kind of show that As We See It aims to be. Despite airing on Amazon, this is a weepie NBC drama that features occasional F-bombs. Katims is familiar with mainstream-friendly fare like this through his past creative forays on movies such as The Vow and especially through network TV fare like Parenthood. The simplified maximalist sentimentality of his past projects isn’t an inherently bad aesthetic. Applied here, though, it informs the overly reductive approach to human beings who deserve better, not to mention more creative, writing.
This creative direction is especially apparent in the grand, dramatic forms of the show’s conflicts, which leaves the autistic characters, especially Violet, in a constant state of mid-meltdown. There are no small or quiet forms of turmoil: autistic characters can only cause or experience problems in the biggest fashion possible. Viewing these episodes back-to-back, it’s creepy how much this show lingers on autistic characters in extreme emotional distress. Plus, when everything is a seismic plot development, it’s hard to get invested in what’s happening on-screen.
Autistic viewers, and even those just looking for feel-good schmaltzy television, deserve better than this.
The old-school nature of As We See It extends to the disappointing decision to make Mandy the main character of the show It’s not a new concept to filter stories about autistic people through neurotypical leads (Sia’s dreadful Music also did this last year), but that doesn’t make it any less aggravating to see the program go down this route. The camerawork is especially defined by emphasizing Mandy’s perspective, right down to how multiple episodes, including the season finale, end on wide shots of her sitting alone processing everything’s gone through in the preceding episode.
There’s a multitude of problems with As We See It opting to shift focus onto neurotypical people like Mandy and Van. The central trio’s abundance of plotlines don’t get enough room to breathe. Worse, it reduces characters like Jack and Violet to objects in the background that can motivate conversations between neurotypical characters. Harrison is specifically often used to kickstart monologue proving Mandy is a good ally to neurodivergent individuals. Autistic people are not medals to show how tolerant neurotypical people are!
I kept waiting for As We See It to give viewers a chance to see who Jack, Harrison, and Violet are like divorced from neurotypical people. What are their ambitions? Favorite movies? What tunes on their iPods? Mandy often mentions that Violet likes books, but we never see this on-screen. The first few episodes, meanwhile, linger on Harrison’s weight more than his interests. It’s hard to get invested enough in characters, autistic or otherwise, to want to watch them navigate eight hours of narratives if they don’t have any depth or personalities.
This shortcoming is almost as frustrating whenever neurotypical characters like Mandy and Jack’s dad (Joe Mantegna) drop comments about how autistic people are “burdens”. That is, before finding them useful once they realized they “were changing [their lives].” That dialogue is harmful, and it’s frustrating how little the show realizes it. The performances, camerawork, and even pieces of Jonathan Sanford’s score channel the vibe of your average tearjerker monologue on This is Us. It’s basically trauma porn.
The suffocatingly traditional nature of As We See It also creeps into Violet’s desire to be sexually active. This notion terrifies Mandy and Van, leading them to restrict her phone access while the former character encourages Violet to date someone “from your own lane”. The show plays stripping away Violet’s romantic autonomy as cutesy while, of course, punishing her once she engages in sexual activity. 1980s slasher movies had more respect for sexually active women than this TV show from 2022!
All the storytelling shortcomings let the talented lead actors down. Props to all three of these performers for trying their best to make lemonade out of this lemon of a show. Pien especially does commendable work, injecting nuanced pathos into a broad caricature. When As We See It dials back the melodrama, as the main trio just sits on a bed together in one episode, it feels downright refreshing.
I yearned for more moments like these, where autistic people get to be defined by their interactions with one another rather than being corralled or used as objects for neurotypical people. Brief visits to a drama club are the only times that Jack, Harrison, and Violet get to interact with a larger community of autistic people, and only one of them (a potential love interest for Violet named Doug) is ever seen at length. It’s tragic to see these missed opportunities for interesting and amusing storylines slip through the show’s fingertips.
As We See It’s approach to autistic people is enough to make the whole program feel disposable, especially when more positive TV depictions of neurodivergent people, like Love on the Spectrum and Everything’s Going to be Okay, exist. However, even if one were to overlook the critical aspect of the program, there’s still not much here to recommend. Talented performers and clever touches in Hansford’s score can’t fully compensate for these blind spots.
With more TV than ever to watch, there’s nowhere near enough in As We See It that screams out must-see TV. Autistic viewers, and even those just looking for feel-good schmaltzy television, deserve better than this.
As We See It is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.