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Review: Amazon's 'As We See It' provides an incisive and emotional look at autism

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The executive producer for classic TV shows like "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood" has created a new show for Amazon Prime Video about three 20-something-year-old roommates on the autism spectrum. It's called "As We See It." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans reports.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "As We See It" begins with an up-close look at how one character on the autism spectrum sees the world. Harrison, who hates loud, unexpected noises and bright lights, is struggling to walk down the street outside his apartment. An aide, played by Sosie Bacon, is coaching him, talking in his ear through his cell phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AS WE SEE IT")

SOSIE BACON: (As Mandy) OK, so I see a garbage truck. It might be a little bit loud, but that's OK. Just keep walking. You're doing great. It's going to be fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARBAGE TRUCK RATTLING)

DEGGANS: But when Harrison, played by Albert Rutecki, comes across a barking dog...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AS WE SEE IT")

BACON: (As Mandy) Almost there. You're so close.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

ALBERT RUTECKI: (As Harrison) Dog. Dog. Dog. Dog. Dog.

BACON: (As Mandy) Harrison. Harrison.

RUTECKI: (As Harrison) Dog. Dog.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Calm down. Stop talking. You're upsetting him.

BACON: (As Mandy) It's OK. It's OK.

DEGGANS: ...He runs back to the apartment, unable to make it to the end of the block.

Jason Katims, who created the American version of the show based on an Israeli series, says this show is centered on the lives of its neurodiverse characters. By focusing on such a specific situation, Katims says he wound up telling a much more universal tale.

JASON KATIMS: Like, I set out to do a show about these three neurodiverse characters on the spectrum and wound up doing a show that felt like more like a universal coming-of-age show about what it is like to, you know, be in your 20s and figuring your life out. In the editing room, I felt like I was surprised myself watching it.

DEGGANS: Like Harrison's roommate Violet, played by Sue Ann Pien, who says she wants to date a boy who isn't on the spectrum and have sex. So while working as a cashier at Arby's, she asks a random customer if he'd like to go on a date.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AS WE SEE IT")

SUE ANN PIEN: (As Violet) The first date could be something fun and silly, like an arcade. That's what Cosmo Online says.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) OK.

PIEN: (As Violet) And the second date should be at a restaurant so we can get to know each other. We can't have sex on date one or date two, but on date three, we can screw, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) What?

DEGGANS: Unfortunately, the customer was married, and his wife was standing next to him.

Or consider Jack, played by Rick Glassman, who's a brilliant computer programmer. But he has trouble reading other people's emotions and processing his own. So when he gets bad news at dinner from his father, played by Joe Mantegna, he handles it unexpectedly.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AS WE SEE IT")

JOE MANTEGNA: (As Lou) Do you want your dad to be supporting you forever?

RICK GLASSMAN: (As Jack) Yes.

MANTEGNA: (As Lou) I have cancer, Jack. I'm fighting for my life, and I'll continue to fight. But you need to have a job and talk to people when they look at you. I need to know you're going to be OK, Jack.

GLASSMAN: (As Jack) Can I eat in silence now? I would like to focus on my last slice.

MANTEGNA: (As Lou) Sure.

DEGGANS: Katims says the storylines and portrayals feel authentic in part because Harrison, Violet and Jack are played by actors who identify as being on the autism spectrum. The executive producer also employed neurodiverse people behind the scenes in an effort to make sure they weren't reinforcing damaging tropes. This is ground that Katims has explored before in a different way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOREVER YOUNG")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) May God bless and keep you always. May your wishes all come true. May you always do for others and let others do for you.

DEGGANS: As executive producer of NBC's "Parenthood," Katims introduced a character on the autism spectrum named Max, who was a child of the main characters. He says many of the storylines involving Max came from his own experience. His son Sawyer is on the autism spectrum. After he saw statistics showing large numbers of college-educated people on the spectrum remain unemployed, Katims began thinking about his son's possible future. So when his agent asked him about making an American version of the Israeli show "On The Spectrum," the ideas started flowing.

KATIMS: You know, I think we hear a lot and see a lot and read a lot about autism in terms of the experience of childhood and what it's like to be a child or to be a parent or a sibling, etc. but less so about what the experience of being an adult on the spectrum is like.

DEGGANS: And as we see it, Katims has created an emotional, touching series that gives each character a compelling, empathetic storyline. Along the way, he's provided an important example for how TV can improve its depiction of characters on the spectrum.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOM YORKE SONG, "ATOMS FOR PEACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.