Second only to the ‘procedural cop show’ is the ‘backyard makeover show’ in terms of formulaic predictability. As you might imagine, I began watching The Autistic Gardener with considerable skepticism. Unfortunately my reservations were mostly confirmed but there were some glimmers of imagination and interest in this show. And there’s the larger question of whether a show like this should be judged according to others in its category or overall as a piece of entertainment.
Despite my preexisting irritation with the genre, I was quite intrigued by the title and concept before I watched Wednesday’s episode. When you explain the show’s premise to someone it’s easy to make it sound intriguing because we’ve all seen or heard of amazingly detailed paintings, musical compositions, or inventions crafted by people on the spectrum. But the show doesn’t seem to offer any of these super-human challenges or opportunities to its amateur autistic gardeners. They touch on and explain the skills and traits that they have but don’t really put them to the test. Instead they labour their social challenges. There may have been good reasons for this at some point during the production process but it feels like they’re contriving conflict rather than celebrating uniqueness.
The host, Alan Gardener, fits the show well. His voiceovers had moments of brilliant self-awareness, eg: “This is the bit they tell me we’re supposed to recap what’s happened so far”. But hanging over his head like a wet sponge is a format that hasn’t adapted to the concept. They’ve just plunked a group of likable autistic people in a traditional backyard makeover show and watched them try to fit into it; providing frequent moments of tension, both social and otherwise. This gives viewers the sense that something is at stake, which is often important for shows in this genre, but doesn’t capitalise much on the premise itself.
The interludes in which Alan describes the science of autism are actually really interesting and make me think the show would have worked better as a documentary rather than a cheesy half-real reality show. We want to see the talent, grit, determination and struggle but not within the confines of ‘Ooops-style’ twinkling background music and obvious close-ups.