‘On the Spectrum’ and into our hearts

The new television series On the Spectrum, which just premiered on YES, is about three young adults with autism living in Tel Aviv, one of whom, Ron (Niv Majar) is a young man obsessed with roombas (the autonomous vacuum cleaner/robot).

As the mother of a young man with autism who is obsessed with vacuum cleaners, I connected to this moving, funny and very real series in an extremely personal way.

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That said, it’s a series that will also strike a chord with audiences who have no connection to autism, because it is entertaining, thoughtful and beautifully acted. It’s no surprise that it won the top prize at Series Mania, one of the most prestigious television competitions in the world, which was held in France earlier this month.

Created by Yuval Shafferman and Dana Idisis, whose documentary about her autistic brother, Turning Thirteen, chronicled his bar mitzva, it takes you inside the heads of people with autism. In this respect, it’s similar to Rachel Israel’s feature film Keep the Change, which is currently playing in theaters around Israel.

In On the Spectrum, you see the characters as they see themselves, but you also view them through the eyes of everyone around them. This isn’t some mindless, politically correct but unrealistically upbeat celebration of what’s called “neurodiversity.” It’s a look at what it’s like to be on the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum, knowing that you don’t fit in with most of the world and not always knowing why – or whether fitting in is really what you want. And while it celebrates the moments of humor and grace, it doesn’t minimize the difficulties they face, or their sadness and isolation.

The three roommates want very different things out of life, and their families and support staff try to help them but often can’t understand them. Ron, the guy who loves watching his roomba, is incredibly gifted with computers, but it’s difficult for him to leave his apartment.

At an interview for a high-tech job, he is truthful about his weaknesses and doesn’t get hired. By coincidence, he befriends an ailing, housebound neighbor who (perhaps a bit too conveniently) reviews new gadgets for a living. His social worker (Tal Yakimov) thinks he should work in an office, but for him, just going upstairs is enough of a challenge.

Amit (Ben Yosipovich) spends his days hanging out aimlessly in cafes and parks, eating junk food, and develops a crush on a gorgeous waitress who is an aspiring actress. He may have autism, but he isn’t dumb – he knows on some level she will never go out with him, but can’t stop himself from trying, again, not unlike many guys. But not everyone would track down her address and simply wait for her. He doesn’t think of himself as a stalker – he just wants to see her.

Zohar (Naomi Levov, who starred as poet Yona Wallach in Nir Bergman’s biopic Yona) works in food prep at an Aroma cafe and dreams of calling out orders on the microphone. But what she really wants is a boyfriend, although her protective brother, Asher (Avi Dangur), is worried about what will happen to her on the dating scene, and not without reason.

In one of the saddest scenes in the series, she has a date at a cafe with someone she ed through an online dating service, and the way she asks him what he wants to drink is enough to send him out of the place through a back door as quickly as possible. She doesn’t say or do anything outrageous, but the tone of her voice and her body language as she asks him whether he wants wine, coffee or juice is odd. This moment illustrates very clearly the heartbreaking challenges Zohar faces: she gets the date, dresses nicely, makes a list of all her co-workers’ suggestion on how to act and follows their recommendations – and still she drives the guy away.

It’s moments like this that make the series so touching, because we can all identify with Ron, Amit and Zohar’s struggles to fit in, to live their lives according to codes most of us have internalized but that they have to learn by rote.

Zohar’s brother Asher may seem uncaring and extreme as he screams at her that she can never let anyone touch her, and I imagine that in future episodes he will moderate his views a bit.

In one of the last scenes of the third episode (the first three episodes were released for review), as Asher composes an ad to find an owner for a dog Amit brought to the apartment, at first he writes the truth, that the dog can be difficult and bites sometimes, and then edits it to say that the dog simply needs a warm home. It’s obviously a metaphor for his feelings about his sister and her roommates, and it acknowledges the shared humanity and struggles of all the characters.

The series is running on YES Edge on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. and is available on YES VOD.