“I just want to be normal!”
It’s fair to say that television still has a long way to go in terms of disability visibility. On-screen at the moment we have deaf actress Rose Ayling-Ellis portraying a deaf character on a nightly soap. Another deaf actor Nadeem Islam is currently one of the stars of The Bay and Ruth Madely who has spina bifida has become a huge star thanks to her roles in dramas Don’t Take My Baby and Years & Years.
Of all the disabilities autism is one that we see regularly on screen. Peter Bowker’s excellent family drama The A Word captured how autism can affect family life. It didn’t shy away from the difficulties but also celebrated the condition. It can sometimes, and this is where I feel slightly uneasy, be used comedically. Though he’s never diagnosed, it’s clear that the breakout star of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper has traits more commonly associated with Aspergers. A desire to sit in his favourite spot on the couch, or to knock on his neighbour’s door in a certain rhythm. Then there was Saga Norén, a police detective from The Bridge, who again was never officially diagnosed as being on the spectrum but it was always clear she may be. Through portrayals like this in comedy and drama, the condition has been somewhat normalised and it’s something audiences feel they understand.
It is estimated that around 700,000 people in the UK have a diagnosis of autism. One in 100 children in the UK has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Autism is a spectrum that is wide and broad and each case is unique.
In his long-running NBC series Parenthood (it never aired in the UK as far as I’m aware) Creator, Jason Katims put autism front and centre. The series focused on branches of the Braverman family. Over the course of its first season, 8-year old Max Braverman (Max Burkholder) was diagnosed with Aspergers. It told his story and that of his wider family as he grew older and is credited with helping spread word of the condition.
In an interview with The Los Angeles Times Katims said, “A frequent criticism of shows or films that attempt to shed light and increase the visibility of the autism community is the misinformation that persists because the people telling the stories often aren’t living with autism themselves. On “Parenthood,” Max wasn’t portrayed by an actor on the spectrum, and there were no writers who identified as neurodiverse helping to craft his storyline.”
In his new show, As We See It (now streaming on Amazon Prime Video) Katims has taken what he learned in Parenthood and expanded it to look at adults with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). It focuses on a trio of young adults with autism: blunt Jack (Rick Glassman), desperate for love Violet (Sue Ann Pien), and 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 behavioural aide Mandy (Sosie Bacon), who helps coach them through the various obstacles created by their ASD. She is there to help them navigate the things they don’t understand. She fights their corner when neighbours or members of the community are intolerant and she wants to help them succeed in a world that isn’t designed for them. The three roommates have known each other since childhood, but have little in common beyond their diagnoses.
Fans familiar with Katims’ other shows will recognise his signature warmth. I was instantly drawn to everyone here. Sosie Bacon (last seen as a drug addict desperate to get custody of her son in Mare Of Easttown) is instantly brilliant. It’s a perfectly pitched performance. Warm and delicate, she’s a calming presence and someone you’d want on your side at all times. She loves the people she’s working with. She hurts when life lets them down and celebrates the tiniest of their achievements. The show is rare because, even with the more narrow-minded characters, there’s no malice. Everyone here is likeable.
The show is clear to have the housemates all feel very different. Jack (who exhibits the Aspergers traits that viewers have become accustomed to) has a job as a computer programmer for a publishing company, is the highest-functioning. His Aspergers causes him to say things bluntly, unable to fathom how his words might affect those around him. The first episode sees him lose his job after he calls his boss a ‘moron’. When he’s fired, he’s not worried about what this will mean for his future but more by the fact that it’ll mean he doesn’t have enough money for the robot vacuum cleaner he had been saving for. His focus is solely on what benefits him. The concept of other people’s feelings or friendship is entirely alien and unimportant to him. His life comes crashing down when it is revealed his father, his only support system outside of Mandy has been diagnosed with cancer. Like everyone in the show, Joe Mantegna gives a beautiful performance as Jack’s doting father Lou. He’s a man who feels a heavy responsibility for his son and virtually every scene between father and son is heartbreaking. Jack’s only way of dealing with his dad’s diagnosis is to get as many facts as he can. In one gut-wrenching moment, in a rare occasion where Jack displays his real emotion, he tells his dad, “What happens when you die? I need to be prepared and I’m not ready.” The look on Joe Mantegna’s face nearly broke me.
Katims’ shows are known for being emotionally charged. I had 0 interest in American Football, but after the first season of his brilliant series Friday Night Lights, I was so invested with the characters that I was glued to every game the Dillion Panthers played. He has a way of getting under the skin of his characters that makes the viewer feel every bit of their emotion good and bad. It’s not an easy task, but this show, like Friday Night Lights before it masters it brilliantly.
The childlike, sensitive Harrison (Albert Rutecki) can’t even leave the apartment building without lots of coaching and encouragement from Mandy. He’s afraid of loud noises, dogs and anything unfamiliar that it may encounter. The opening sequence which sees Mandy coax him outside and carefully guide him outside by talking to him on a phone as she watches him cautiously navigate the road a few feet away is the first of many great scenes between the pair. Harrison is by far the most severely affected member of the group. His size makes him daunting to people who view him wrongly from the off, but Mandy is always there fighting his corner. His friendship with AJ (Adan James Carrillo), a 10-year boy who lives above him in the building is one of the most endearing in the series. AJ doesn’t see Harrison’s autism. The pair get on because they’re on the same level. AJ likes that Harrison is old but also because he’s easy to talk to. Harrison enjoys AJ’s company because he doesn’t ask anything of him and he doesn’t judge him. A scene where AJ convinces Harrison to travel on a bus with him to ask a fitness instructor to Violet’s Birthday party perfectly illustrates the innocence in their relationship. AJ respects and looks out for his new friend and when members of the gym start asking why a young boy would be hanging out with a ten-year-old boy, Mandy is frustrated but over-joyed that not only has Harrison left the sanctuary of his apartment but he’s also made a friend! That being said, you can understand the response of AJ’s perplexed and angry mother who doesn’t want her son being around someone like Harrison. The show is clear not to paint any of its characters as villains though, instead showing that AJ’s mother just isn’t aware of who Harrison is and the condition he suffers from.
Violet (Sue Ann Pien) works as a ‘sandwich artist’ 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 her roommates. She’s the most conflicted of the three. Harrison and Jack are perfectly content with who they are, in Jack’s case it’s the world’s fault if people don’t understand him, but Violet sees the world differently. She’s endlessly positive but increasingly frustrated that at 25 she hasn’t done any of the ‘normal’ things she should have done.
Her older brother Van (Chris Pang) has been Violet’s support since the death of their parents years before. He’s fully aware of his sister’s childlike tendencies. He’s fiercely protective, shielding her from the cruelties of the modern world at much as he can. He often buts heads with Mandy who doesn’t see any issue with Violet being on dating sites as long as she’s supervised. Knowing how trusting Violet can be Van doesn’t want to see her hurt or worse.
In an early scene, Violet matches with a guy on ‘bumble’ They agree to meet at a local bar, The Purple Pig. The date starts off well, but when Violet enthusiastically launches into a tirade on her lip gloss and possibly kissing later, her date questions her age and tells her he needs to go to the bathroom. Violet waits patiently, even calling Van to tell him how well the date is going. When Van realises the situation his sister is in he comes to her rescue, much to Violet’s disgust. It’s one of many examples that show that Violet is desperate to be a ‘normal’ girl of her age but the world, and her condition consistently prevents it. She’s constantly let down. Her young cool colleagues who humour at work don’t turn up when she invites them to her Birthday party. Van’s girlfriend Salena (Vella Lovell) who Violet instantly latches onto as ‘the coolest person she’s ever met’ lets her down.
When her happy go lucky exterior breaks it’s properly traumatic. She becomes a small child, screaming on the floor unable to process her feelings. At one point an exasperated Van screams at her, “You’re not f**king normal”. It’s a scene that’s truly difficult to watch. She lashes back at him reminding him how her mum told her how special she was and how she hates that he’s the only person she has now. In a show filled with raw and emotional stories, Violet’s hits the hardest because she knows she’s different. She doesn’t accept the other people with disabilities in the group. She wants to be with the people that she thinks are cool. When she meets a new delivery driver at the restaurant she predictably forms a strong attachment. Jullian (Casey Mills) seems to show a genuine interest in her and she’s quick to fantasise about the life they’ll have together. When another autistic boy from her drama club shows similar interest in her, she’s quick to bat him away because she wants normalcy.
The show feels incredibly authentic. That’s probably because the leads are played by actors who themselves identify as being on the spectrum. In that same interview for The Los Angeles Times, Katims explains, “We tried to keep our shooting days short. We did try to keep the set as calm and quiet as possible, but it is a TV set. There was one day when I walked onto the set, and we were between takes, and the crew was setting up and people were having conversations and it was a little bit loud and I saw Albert sitting in the corner of the living room setup. He had his hands over his ears because all of it was too much for him. And I observed Sue Ann walked up to him and sat down on the stool next to him, and didn’t say anything to him, but just put her hands over her ears. She wasn’t actually overwhelmed at that moment, but she was there for her fellow actor in a way that was just so beautiful. A few episodes later, I walked onto the set, and it was kind of loud between takes, and I looked to see how Albert was doing and he was singing show tunes; he had become so comfortable in those few weeks or months that we were doing it that there was a spirit of excitement about telling the story.”
Because the roommates don’t always feel close to one another, the show focuses on the strong bonds between members of their respective families. Van’s protectiveness that Violet finds so suffocating comes from a place of love. He wants his sister to find love but doesn’t want her to go through the inevitable heartbreak. Jack’s father Lou is the only person who knows Jack intimately. He is terrified going through his cancer diagnosis but can’t let his vulnerable son know that. I really appreciated that the show spent time getting to know not just the characters at the centre, but the people who meant the most to them.
Mandy’s role is fascinating and integral. They wouldn’t be there living independently without her help. She finds herself torn between doing what she can for the people in her care — 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.
As We See It, cleverly navigates the little victories these characters have with the harsh realities of living in a world that knows you are different even if you don’t. It’s a show that will move you at every turn and one that should be seen and celebrated. I truly fell in love with it.
As We See It is available now on Amazon Prime Video