BARNHART

Netflix's Love on the Spectrum Is the Autism Dating Reality Show We All Need

Nothing restores faith in humanity like a show about sincere people looking for love.
  • 25-year-old Michael, one of the subjects of Love on the Spectrum, says his greatest dream is to find a wife. (Photo: ABC/Netflix)
    25-year-old Michael, one of the subjects of Love on the Spectrum, says his greatest dream is to find a wife. (Photo: ABC/Netflix)
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart is your guide to the good, the great, and the skippable. Subscribe to get all his Primetimer reviews.

    I’m thinking of writing a sequel to my Hunker Down TV guide and calling it the “Restore Faith In Humanity” guide. Entertainment shouldn’t just give us an escape from the ignorance, violence and cruelty out there; it should flip the script and remind us that people are also routinely awesome. When we wake up in the morning feeling something other than despair, it’s because of people — the ones sharing our journey, inspiring us, cheering us on.

    Which brings me to the first entry in my Restore Faith in Humanity TV guide, Love on the Spectrum. This Australian Broadcasting Corp. import, another winner from down under, follows several young high-functioning adults with autism or Asperger’s as they inch into the dating scene. These are people who know what they want — intimacy, a life partner — and are painfully aware of how elusive a goal that can be, for themselves in particular.

    “It’s always been on my mind — it’s just always been so hard to get,” sighs Mark, one of several young adults whose dating exploits director Cian O’Clery follows over the course of five, and I wish it were more, episodes.

    O’Clery has found a range of subjects, mostly straight, mostly new to the dating scene despite being in their mid to late twenties. They are verbal, even verbose, and are clearly up for whatever these TV people have decided to throw at them. They are all a bit quirky. “One message that I’d like to send to every woman in the world,” declares Michael, “I’m the kind of partner that is able to provide five things that every woman needs: love, respect, happiness, support, and security.”

    Maddi, an appealing young woman, is asked by O’Clery what she thinks are the keys to love. “I think it requires communication, honesty, and compromise,” she says.

    All good, but clearly this is book learning. Through the artificiality of the reality-TV format, Love on the Spectrum takes these adults well past their comfort zones, testing their emotions and their interpersonal skills in dating situations that I found myself relating to way more than I expected.

    Love on the Spectrum is far from the first American TV show to look at the challenges of being young and autistic. It’s not as moody or emotionally wrought as scripted shows like Netflix’s Atypical. But its quest is one that feels so relevant right now. These genuinely nice young adults have family members who love and support them. And yet, they are lonely, and want to do something to become less lonely. At a time like this, how can one not live vicariously through such people?

    Like most reality shows, there’s clearly been some work done behind the scenes — the dates always seem to wind up at places that they find agreeable, like a zoo or sunflower park. O’Clery is constantly checking in, even mid-date, to find out how things are going. (One of the show’s subjects, Kelvin, doesn’t have an indoor voice, and winds up describing his date while she’s in earshot.)

    Jodi Rodgers, a likable dating coach, comes in for sessions with several of the subjects. She passes along the kind of sensible advice about listening and taking cues from the other person that you don’t have to be on the spectrum to appreciate. It’s the generosity of spirit with which the advice is offered, and the eagerness and sincerity with which it’s accepted, that makes Love on the Spectrum so appealing. In that way it reminds me of the New Zealand reality show Casketeers, where a family’s devotion to funeral rites is so simple and guileless, it makes you wonder if we Americans are just too cynical to make shows like these.

    The timespan covered by Love on the Spectrum is too limited to see any of these newbies find long-lasting love — but then again, you know, The Bachelor. What’s different here is the context. Whatever challenge may exist in unlocking the secrets of intimacy, to these people it is just the latest mountain they have had to climb. This becomes clear with Mark, a paleontology nut who gets just a little bit wiser with each new woman he dates.

    Like almost everyone else featured here, he lives with his parents. “Mark in his early age, he had limited language, meltdowns, he was destructive,” his dad says. “A lot of our friends who had children with autism, their marriages broke down, and ours was strained too. I need people to know you have to work hard, you have to work together, and I think it’s starting to pay dividends…”

    And here Mark’s dad starts to break up. He’s not the only parent who gets teary-eyed on this show, and the tears speak to how rocky the road was just to get to this point, where they can actually dream about their autistic child finding a mate. Whether the dream comes true or not, they’ve already achieved so much. Love on the Spectrum is a nice twist on the dating show, but it’s also a reminder that with the love and support of others, we’re capable of damn near anything.

    All five episodes of Love on the Spectrum drop on Netflix today.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Love on the Spectrum, Australia Broadcasting Corp., Netflix, Reality TV