A conversation with "Atypical" showrunner Robia Rashid on forging a career in television writing.
Prior to her career as a television writer, Atypical showrunner Robia Rashid earned her bachelor’s degree in education. Now, she's educating aspiring writers, and she's educated me.
Robia was a panelist at the Austin Film Festival this past November, where she took time out of her busy panel schedule to meet with me for coffee and share her many years of career advice.
All I could offer her was a free almond milk cappuccino, but Robia, in return, gave me unbeatable insight into her lucrative career. Her generosity and honesty in those 30 minutes were priceless - but let's just say she definitely deserves a few more cappuccinos.
Keep scrolling for 5 lessons from Robia and her career!
1. Choose the Medium That’s Best for You:
Before Robia wrote television, she had been writing in other mediums for years, filling up her grandparent’s bookshelves with her plays and short stories. This taught her a love of storytelling and character, but it wasn’t until her mid-twenties that she discovered she was meant for TV.
“I always loved playwriting, but I never wrote long enough plays!” Robia jokes. “I was always into brevity.”
In a class at NYU, where she got a masters degree in Dramatic Writing, Robia took her first television writing class, writing a pilot for the first time. It was from this moment forward that everything clicked, and she stuck with TV writing from then on.
“The first time I wrote TV, it was a relief,” Robia says. “I was like, ‘Ohhh, this is the medium I should have been writing in all this time.’”
After so many years in other formats, not discovering TV until grad school, it makes me wonder how Robia learned so quickly to write for this new medium. However, Robia explains that there were several moments throughout her life where she had used “TV writing skills,” without even knowing she was doing so:
“I [would] round up everyone around me and say, ‘you’re going to be in my productions, and I’m going to build the sets and the costumes,’” Robia says. “And that ends up translating to TV, because you are also a producer when you are a writer in TV.”
In addition to this career-changing realization, Robia also used her past formats to promote her career: Instead of tossing her playwriting aside, Robia used her play, “Termite Season” to earn her first overall deal, which eventually led to Atypical and more.
“I’ve only ever used [Termite] as a writing sample, I’ve never tried to stage it, but it got me my deal at Sony.
2. Stay True to Your Voice Throughout the Years:
If there’s any writer who follows this rule, it’s Robia Rashid, and even her friends from childhood agree. At our meeting, Robia’s friend Melissa tagged along, chiming in on Robia’s unwavering character across the decades they’ve been friends.
“[Robia’s] always the same wherever she goes,” Melissa says.
Robia shares that throughout all her writing, though characters and storylines may naturally change, her strong love of character has kept her voice consistent throughout her years of projects.
“There’s a sort of lightness and energy that has been in all of my writing,” Robia says. “There’s a humor.”
In addition to the humor, Robia believes there’s a core view she holds inside, one that she’s held onto carefully throughout all of her career so far.
“As I get sort of older and have more tv writing experience, I constantly try to refer back to [that core idea],” Robia says. “I kind of try to remember that person.”
3. When the Idea Sticks, It’s a Good One:
Robia got her first deal at Sony in 2013, when she started to pitch them ideas for series. One of these ideas eventually became the widely-watched Netflix series, Atypical (spoiler alert!), however, before Sony loved it and Netflix picked it up, Sony turned the idea down, practically killing the script before it even was written.
“Every time I would go for a coffee break, scenes would pop into my head,” Robia says.
So, in order to manifest this “atypical dream”, Robia wrote the pilot script on spec, i.e., for free, despite her fame and prowess in the industry. Turns out, Robia’s risk benefitted her tenfold, when Sony took a look at her hard, unpaid work.
“I wrote the first episode and then they understood what it was and loved it, and then I wrote a series document and they loved it,” Robia says.
However, it wasn’t easy sailing automatically, because even though Sony loved Atypical, the streamers they sent it to all passed on the project. Robia thought Atypical was dead in the water, so she took a break to have her first baby.
After that five-month period of waiting, Netflix called to say they changed their mind, agreeing to make Atypical with Robia and jumpstarting her showrunning career.
“When something has that sort of energy, that’s when you know it’s a thing you should pursue,” Robia says.
4. Be Open to Feedback - It’s Cool!
With Atypical, a show about autism and family, Robia opened the casting call for the lead character “Sam” up to both neurotypical and neurodivergent actors. However, the casting landed on Keir Gilchrist, a neurotypical actor, prompting some backlash from fans who believed the series lacked representation.
“I feel like that was one of the only real negative pieces of feedback we got,” Robia says.
In response to this criticism, Robia set out to implement the changes fans so desperately desired, starting with representation in the cast. For Seasons Two and Three of Atypical, Robia developed entirely new characters and storylines with the new goal of broadening the cast’s representation.
“I created Sam’s support group, and that’s all autistic actors, and then in Season 3, we had those [support group] characters and also his new friends in college!” Robia says.
But Robia didn’t stop with representation in the cast for this project. Instead, she took the feedback from fans and viewers and hired an Autism and Neurodiversity Consultant, David Finch, to read the scripts and watch the cuts for any stereotypical moments or errors.
“[David] was our writing consultant,” Robia says. “That’s his job - he works as a consultant for shows that deal with autism.”
5. You’re Never too Old to Try Something New:
At this point in her career, seventeen years out of grad school, Robia has done what some of us only dream of doing: She’s written on How I Met Your Mother, executive produced an episode of The Goldbergs, created and ran the room for Atypical, and held a deal with Sony for 10 years.
It’s a highly impressive list of credits. However, now, with kids, and with so many of her dreams accomplished, Robia’s unsure where to go next.
“I’m kind of in this space where I kind of got my dream job, and now im on the other side of that and I’m like - now what?
Robia’s currently exploring the options. While on Atypical, she directed an episode for the first time, and she really enjoyed it, so she’s starting to think about directing again.
“I love working with actors, and I love working with writers, so I’m excited to get back into that,” Robia says.
In addition to trying her hand at directing, Robia is also interested in writing for new genres in television series.
“Once I got done with Atypical, I was kind of in this ‘What’s next? Who am I?’ kind of place,” Robia says. “I decided I wanted to do stuff that’s new to me.”
Robia decided that the mystery genre is new and challenging to her, so she’s working on a half-hour mystery series right now, and she has her eyes set on fantasy next.
“I read a lot of fantasy, so I think that would be a cool thing to kind of jump into,” Robia says. “I read a lot of comic books, too; I’m a big reader.”
As a fantasy nerd myself, I can't wait for Robia to write fantasy; you can already count me a fan. :)
Thank you so much to Robia for meeting with me, and thank you to her assistant, Alyssa Yoffie, for all the scheduling and communication!
Happy Holidays, Everyone.