After binge-watching As We See It, a moving American adaptation of the Israeli show On the Spectrum, about three roommates who have autism, which begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video on January 21, my first thought was: I hope there is a second season, and soon.
Closely based on the concept of the Israeli show by Dana Idisis and Yuval Shafferman, which was produced by Yes Studios, As We See It was created by Jason Katims, who made two wonderful series, Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, and now he has hit a third home run.
Katims has a son with Asperger syndrome, who inspired the character of Max Braverman on Parenthood (the perfect intelligent feel-good show to watch during the pandemic, which is also available on Amazon Prime Video), and this subject is obviously close to his heart. At this point, I need to admit that it is close to mine as well since I have a son with autism. It’s safe to say that over the past 20 years, I have spent more time with people who are on the spectrum than off of it.
But while that may make me more interested in the show’s premise than the casual viewer, I am also more likely to be critical and aware of inauthenticity. But inauthenticity is not a problem here because the series hits all the right notes. The three main characters have what is sometimes called high-functioning autism and at other times referred to as Asperger’s.
They are carefully developed in a way that illustrates the famous quote by Dr. Stephen Shore, a professor who is on the spectrum: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” While people like my son and many others on the spectrum need 24/7 care, the characters on As We See It are able to venture out on their own, to a certain extent. Yet they are not doctors or savants who can count cards and win big in Las Vegas.
Katims, like Idisis and Shafferman before him, is scrupulous in portraying their autism as something more than cute and quirky otherness. It makes them who they are and has virtues, like honesty. But it also makes it monumentally difficult for them to exist in this world, and everything from a demanding boss to the sound of a leaf blower can send them fleeing back to their rooms, crushed by failure. To deny the difficulties they face would be dishonest and it would also rob As We See It of the fundamental drama that makes it so entertaining.
The trio of roommates have been together since preschool and are in their mid-20s. Violet (Sue Ann Pien) has been looked after by her brother, Van (Chris Pang), since their parents died and she holds down a job at a fast-food place. She doesn’t want to have anything to do with any of the guys in her special-needs drama class (where she chooses to perform a scene from When Harry Met Sally, which is indescribably poignant when the words come from her) and is dying for a “normal” boyfriend.
Her brother, understandably, fears she will be taken advantage of by sleazy guys. Harrison (Albert Rutecki) is agoraphobic and scared to even think about leaving the apartment. When he befriends a 10-year-old neighbor, he starts to come out of his shell, but then has to face being suspected of being a child molester.
Jack (Rick Glassman) is superficially the most accomplished of the three. He is knowledgeable about computers and has managed to find a job as a programmer at a publishing company. But he is so honest that he tells his boss that he thinks he is an idiot and risks losing everything he has worked for. And he really needs to keep his job, because his father (Joe Mantegna) has cancer and Jack may well need to support himself soon.
Mandy (Sosie Bacon, who played Carrie on Mare of Easttown) is the aide who supervises them and tries to keep their lives running smoothly, a virtually impossible task but one that she relishes. She is the rare professional – the kind that parents dream about finding – who is utterly devoted to her work.
The intense relationships that develop between the caregivers and residents in a place like this, and also between the caregivers and the family members, have rarely been portrayed before. As We See It is also very honest about how Mandy lets her own life slide as she becomes so central in the residents’ lives, which can often happen. The families struggle as well to balance their caretaking with their own lives.
The performances are outstanding, both by the three actors portraying the residents, all of whom are on the spectrum themselves, and by the actors playing Mandy and their family members (Joe Mantegna happens to have a daughter on the spectrum).
If there is a standout in this ensemble, it is Sue Ann Pien, who makes Violet’s yearning for normalcy so real and heartbreaking. Violet’s desire for a boyfriend coupled with her inability to read the cues that would tell her that the attractive delivery guy she meets is not interested in a relationship is a heightened version of what everyone goes through on the dating scene. But Violet is so vulnerable, this disappointment threatens to break her.
While this series may sound like heavy going, the characters are infused with humanity and the writing is filled with so much humor that it is a joy to watch. The dialogue is funny and true and I kept pausing the episodes to laugh and to cry. My favorite line came from Jack, who, when he has finally started dating, tells Mandy he will now be much nicer to Harrison so h e can learn to communicate better with his new girlfriend: “I’ll ask how he’s doing, I’ll practice empathy... Now that I’m in a relationship, I’m going to need to start pretending to care about things that I otherwise wouldn’t give a s*** about.”
IF YOU want to watch Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth on Apple TV+, make sure you turn up the volume and turn down the heater, if it’s noisy. The new version of the play, by one-half of the famed Coen brothers directing duo, stars Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in the two lead roles, and they, and many of the other actors, read their lines softly and quickly. So if you haven’t picked up the play since high school, be prepared to either miss a bit of it, or to pause and go back here and there.
The movie, which was shot in black and white, is visually stunning in a way that greatly enhances the drama, and the actors wear period costumes, since updating it to the modern era is so 20th century.
The portrayal of the Weird Sisters as a single bizarre contortionist (Kathryn Hunter) who multiplies is especially effective and the message about the abuse of power could not be more timely.
Washington and McDormand are being touted as Oscar contenders and the movie is likely to be nominated in multiple categories.