One of television’s most powerful and original — and overlooked — series returns as SundanceTV brings back The A Word, Peter Bowker’s emotionally nuanced look at autism.
Quirky, touching, smartly written and beautifully acted, the show actually improves in season two, as it dives deeper into how a child with autism affects the parents, family and, in this case, the surrounding residents in the small town where 7-year-old Joe (Max Vento) lives (the remoteness and beauty of the Lake District in England is central to the story). I ranked The A Word sixth on my list of best series from 2016 and thought Bowker, an acclaimed writer (Marvellous, Blackpool), would have a hard time topping how his little gem of a program took television by surprise. But he’s deepened the connections of all the characters in this second season and, in doing so, taken some of the focus off needing young Vento to carry the load of Joe’s plight while spreading the reverberations of his condition around. The result is an even more compelling and tear-inducing look at the human condition.
The co-production with BBC One and Keshet begins two years after the end of season one (which you should track down on Amazon Prime and watch immediately). Even in the small Lake District region, where Joe was allowed to walk alone down long stretches of remote road, his world has expanded and he’s more aware of not being exactly like the other kids.
Just as Joe is reassured by his loving and doting parents, Alison (Morven Christie) and Paul (Lee Ingleby), that all’s well in his world, he’s dropping clues that he’s more aware of that world and its boundaries than ever before. And he finally drops the word itself. Much of season two is about defining what “autism” means, what people who are unfamiliar with it think it means and, on a more granular level, what it means to the parents of an autistic child.
Bowker, a former teacher who worked with children with learning disabilities, including autism, has deftly and naturally shifted the landscape for Alison and Paul, who spent season one discovering that Joe had autism and what that meant for their son and, to a lesser extent, what it meant for them. Season two finds them learning more about how Joe has changed them, with Alison and Paul shifting roles — the former now fully accepting the diagnosis and handling the everyday issues with aplomb, while Paul’s positive, can-do approach has given way to a more crushing sense of frustration. The beauty of The A Word is its resolute focus on the many facets of autism, and one of its more admirable qualities is a refusal to make that simple or one-dimensional. Alison’s tireless belief that Joe can be at least partially “mainstreamed,” particularly in their hometown, and Paul’s doubts and worry about Joe now and in the future are both thoroughly explored.
Morven and Ingleby are exceptional here, as they grapple with parenting and the toll it is taking on their marriage. The A Word is demanding fare and asks so much of Morven and Ingleby; season two has both delivering superbly shaded performances that are essential to the overall dramatic impact and the success of the show.
So, too, is the wonderful Christopher Eccleston (The Leftovers, Doctor Who), who continues to bring a warm-hearted sense of comic relief to the heart-rending series as Maurice, Joe’s grandfather and the town’s meddlesome brewery owner.
At six episodes, the first season seemed almost too short. Bowker not only had Alison and Paul dealing with Joe and his older sister, Rebecca (Molly Wright), but Alison’s brother Eddie (Greg McHugh) struggling with Maurice wanting him to take over the brewery while Eddie’s marriage to Nicola (Vinette Robinson) was dissolving. It was a lot. But it was also excellent. And Bowker even shoehorned in a romance for Maurice with local music teacher Louise (Pooky Quesnel), whose issues with a grown son with Down syndrome gave resonance to Joe’s story (and captured how a small town often deals with people who are not “normal”).
Ambition has never been a problem for The A Word, which deftly adds a single mother and her teenaged autistic son to the group this season.
It’s precisely the packed-in accomplishments of season one that fuel the success of season two. While Vento, as Joe, did an admirable job of playing an autistic child in the first season, it’s not as essential to lay out his story for the audience in season two, which allows the other characters to blossom and the strong cast to fine-tune those performances.
Vento still does excellent, quiet work here as Joe. If anything, he’s being asked to be more interior in his performance, looking back at his parents, extended family and fellow students staring in on him. It’s a subtle but effective switch of focus.
In the first season, Vento’s bright face sat under blue headphones as Joe’s love of British punk, new wave and pop music (primarily from the late 1970s to early 2000s) not only provided a kind of shelter for his emotional reactions (or lack thereof) but also a superb soundtrack to the series — and a nice conceit, in that Joe’s love of his parents’ music connects him back to them in ways he can’t express emotionally.
Joe is still roaming the spectacularly beautiful mountains and valleys around town, but this time someone is always close behind. Bowker takes that expanded connection to others and broadens the storytelling.
As we get more of Joe’s world, we get more of the people in it. The A Word benefits greatly from the expansion, cementing itself as an emotionally astute, smart and funny series just waiting to be discovered.
Cast: Max Vento, Morven Christie, Lee Ingleby, Christopher Eccleston, Molly Wright, Greg McHugh, Vinette Robinson, Pooky Quesnel
Written by: Peter Bowker
Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (SundanceTV)