'The A Word': TV Review

Courtesy of Keshet International
Brilliant and not to be missed.
7/13/2016

This wonderful and beautifully acted little gem of a miniseries about autism, family and small towns airs on SundanceTV.

For a miniseries that will probably get lost over on SundanceTV, there's so much to love about The A Word, a British adaptation of an Israeli miniseries about a five-year-old boy with autism. It's an absolute gem, delightful and thoughtful, serious, sad and also ridiculously funny. It's one of those series that ultimately bites off a bit more than it has time to deliver on, but it's never short on ambition and the talent to pull most of it off.

So, yes, if you're distracted by Mr. Robot or other offerings, make a note to record or circle back to The A Word.

Written by Peter Bowker (Marvellous, Blackpool) in a way that's a jumping-off point but not a copy of the original, The A Word is a deeply impressive look at a difficult topic that manages to be creatively quirky, emotionally alert and very intuitive about parenting, family dynamics and people in general. You don't get the full thrust of how great Bowker is at this until you've gone through all six episodes and witnessed him run the gamut from five-year-old Joe (Max Vento), the boy on the autism spectrum, to his parents Alison (Morven Christie) and Paul (Lee Ingleby), who have varied and changing reactions to Joe's diagnosis, to their teenaged daughter Rebecca (Molly Wright) and grandfather Maurice (Christopher Eccleston).

It's via these characters, who live in very rural Northern England (a setting that allows Bowker to display some of that aforementioned creative quirk), that so many truths about families and their disparate issues can come to light.

Alison is a force of nature, reluctant to admit that Joe is different, even though both she and Paul suspect so, but also unwilling to admit to herself that he might not be a "genius" and will stand out from others, leading to small-town judgment, "labels" and the loss of normalcy.

Christie's performance is perfectly matched to Bowker's mission — to illustrate the emotional roller-coaster parents will go on once autism is detected. Alison is both maddening in her reluctance to admit Joe isn't "perfect" and in how she makes it about her and about the perception of others; but she's also necessarily fierce in fighting for what Joe will need to succeed in the world, a kind of relentless mothering that makes so much sense but is alienating. It's a very challenging role that Christie nails perfectly.

Bowker, a former teacher of children with severe learning disabilities (including autism) and someone with friends familiar with autism, did a lot of research on the topic before recreating the original series (called Yellow Peppers in Israel), so he could attempt to dramatically get at all the parental stages and reaction to autism. He immediately and successfully shows how Alison doesn't want to acknowledge the situation, how Paul uses humor and smothering as a defense mechanism (it's both all he knows and somehow the perfect antidote to Alison, while still being wrong) and then sends both on this incredible journey.

Part of what makes it all so compelling is Bowker's ability to let Joe resonate outward. How his parents — in particular Alison — ignore Rebecca's teenage needs because of the all-consuming nature of Joe's situation, and how that can fracture a family. (Credit Bowker, yet again, with raising the stakes through deft narrative layering: Rebecca is the daughter from Alison's first marriage, which makes Paul empathetic because he's so good with her when Alison is favoring Joe; but Paul would also like to have another baby, one that would be more "normal").

There are nods elsewhere to how thought-out The A Word is. Such as how the politically incorrect Maurice, who already has an enormous impact on his family, very subtly has hints of also being on the spectrum.

Maurice lost his wife a year earlier and has retired from the brewery that has both given his family a good life and supplied the remote town with something to drink; he's still the alpha, seen running up the beautifully remote hills of the village, burning off energy. Eccleston is superb (unsurprisingly) as he's able to be both a subject of comedy and raw emotion. That a supporting character in The A Word is so fully developed when so much of the story revolves around Joe and his parents is a testament to its skill and perceptiveness about people. 

And the remote, small-village location allows Bowker to let Joe's eccentricities shine through. Vento is great in a very demanding role. Five-year-old child actors are a handful regardless — either too precocious or distracting in their uselessness to plot. Here Vento is front and center, and the whole of The A Word works because of his charm. The casting in this series is perfect.

Bowker knows that some children with autism gravitate to music (partly as a way to block out others and the emotional and sometimes intellectual connection it requires). Here he's made Joe a bit of a savant about his father's music — so The A Word becomes something you might get from Nick Hornby as music spanning the late 1980s through the early 2000s plays a central part. Each of the six episodes begins with Joe walking, by himself, every morning on a remote road leading into the village, his ever-present blue headphones on and singing out the lyrics to his dad's favorite tunes. That the Arctic Monkeys kick things off with "Mardy Bum" is perfect (the band is featured a lot and its upbeat, lyric-heavy songs are a good way of revealing how smart and quick-minded and outgoing Joe can be).

The entirety of The A Word is one of those music lover's dreams, and you can excuse the quirk of Joe's morning ritual (which would, of course, freak out pretty much every parent) because Bowker and Academy Award-nominated director Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty) not only use it to illustrate Joe's isolated world but the remote community where everyone knows everyone else (this plays into both Joe's safety and Alison's worry that he'll be forever judged) while also imbuing the series with gleeful charm as it then tumbles into difficult topics. There are moments that some might consider manipulative as it relates to the music, but if you buy in on Joe's use of songs, lyrics and singing out loud as an emotional tether that allows Joe to function, it all works.

Bowker could have easily made this miniseries a depressing look at autism and its fallout on parents, but he makes it expansive not only because autism isn't a disease or a death sentence on the one hand and because he's a dramatist interested in storytelling ambition on the other. A small town allows numerous character arcs, and most of those are well told even when certain characters have small roles — each adding nuance and seasoning to this constructed world.

Where Bowker maybe gets a little too ambitious is adding, on top of Joe and his parents' story (and Maurice and Rebecca), that of Eddie (Greg McHugh), Maurice's son and Alison's brother, who comes back from the big city to take over dad's brewery, which had been (adequately) run by Paul, who in turn has decided to make his dream of a "gastropub" come true. But Eddie's arrival brings with it the story of his wife's infidelity, so that when we meet Nicola (Vinette Robinson), a lovely doctor, we now have their story of trying to patch together a marriage out in the sticks where she can't really get a proper job and Eddie's historic emasculation from Maurice adds to his sad-sack background as he tries to prove himself (very well) at the pub. It's not a bad story — McHugh and Robinson are wonderful — it's just a lot on top of a lot and sometimes appears as a distraction. That said, wow, Bowker likes a challenge.

That's partly the allure of The A Word — it becomes something much larger and more shaded than just a story about autism (when a story about autism could have easily filled up those six hours). In getting this greater world — even when it might be a tad too spacious for the story spinning at the center of it — viewers will find all kinds of unexpected moments of human insight; laughter and tears mingling with quirks amidst a brilliant soundtrack.

So, yeah, it'll be easy to overlook this miniseries, which arrives with so little summer fanfare. But do yourself a favor and keep track of this small treasure so that you can dive into this world when you have the time. Thanks to Bowker and an amazingly spot-on cast, the rewards are immense.

Cast: Christopher Eccleston, Max Vento, Morven Christie, Lee Ingleby, Molly Wright, Greg McHugh, Vinette Robinson
Written by: Peter Bowker
Directed by: Peter Cattaneo
Airs: Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Sundance TV)

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine

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