Every episode of “The A Word” starts with little Joe Hughes (Max Vento) walking alone down the middle of a two-lane highway with bulky blue headphones placed firmly over his ears. Around him is the windswept, lonely landscape of the Lake District of England.
It’s an image that is both charming and disconcerting. The landscape is idyllic but stark; Joe is adorable, but at five years old, he’s too young to be alone. He’s singing at the top of his lungs — but that means he can’t hear a car coming around the bend. In each of the six episodes, what Joe is singing, what he’s carrying in his arms, and how he ends up getting home is a little bit different. But each time, it’s hard to shake worry for him. There’s something lovely and free about his marauding, but there’s something oblivious about it, too.
The best thing about SundanceTV’s acquisition of “The A Word,” debuting July 13, is its compassion and curiosity about children on the autism spectrum. While the series is about this family learning how to handle the boy’s disorder, “The A Word” also demonstrates a lot of love and appreciation for Joe’s peculiar world.
Joe’s parents, Paul (Lee Ingleby) and Alison (Morven Christie) don’t even know that Joe is on the spectrum when the series opens. The couple is embedded in a loudmouthed family dynamic that is probably supposed to be charming, headed by Alison’s father Maurice (Christopher Eccleston). Though the collection of siblings and in-laws and grandchildren are not quite as funny or dysfunctional as they say they are, they make for a kind of ragged coalition around Joe, each with an identifiably different relationship to him and his disorder. Vento is an amazingly believable little actor, capable of both adopting the behaviors of children on the spectrum and of playing those behaviors differently, depending on his scene partner. His moments with older sister Rebecca (Molly Wright) are especially touching, as she is both increasingly ignored by her stressed-out parents and is also one of the few people who has a real and heartfelt relationship with him.
But “The A Word” wants to be about more than just Joe, and that’s where the show declines. Along with the at times far-too-detailed family bickering (something something adultery, something something business), the family welcomes in, and is a part of, all sorts of small-town drama. There’s a gastropub project and a local doctor’s office, a cute boy at school and a brewery to run. There’s the widowed music teacher who wants a casual relationship and the Polish woman with vague visa status. It’s tolerable, but it’s not compelling. The backstory and context is there to try to demonstrate where parents Paul and Alison are coming from with their struggles over Joe. But it fails to connect, either to them or to Joe, and instead becomes cheery window dressing that distracts from what the show is really good at doing.
And, arguably, the show fails at what it is really trying to do, which is to bring the audience into the shame, frustration and despair that Paul and especially Alison feel towards their child with special needs. The show is full of some quite difficult scenes — moments where Alison or Paul desperately try to get Joe to “act normal.” Alison, in particular, is afraid to tell their insular little town about Joe’s disorder, and both struggle with their feelings of inadequacy and sadness. And though there is an understandable and human story there, it is a bit off-putting to watch a show where parents extensively describe their own sense of failure for having a kid with autism — and then never quite come around to some sort of acceptance or appreciation for the child they have. If they do come around to appreciating Joe, it’s a shaky little moment of personal crisis, in the last few minutes of an often tedious six-hour journey.
Indeed, the viewer grows to hate both parents’ weaknesses and foibles, their obvious mistakes and character flaws. It’s difficult to tell whether or not this is intentional. On one hand, it’s brutally brilliant; the viewer is goaded into compassion that even the boy’s parents can’t always feel. At the same time, though, the show leaves a lot of material on the table, in a move that feels less like scene-setting for the just-announced season 2 and more like carelessness.
This is most apparent with Alison, a pushy mom whose love for her children is all that appears to define her. She lies to her neighbors about Joe and tries to bully clinicians, the police and her son’s teachers to take care of her child. But her stubbornness and selfishness are so much of what is causing Joe to withdraw, unable to meet her massive need for validation. Around the third episode of “The A Word,” Alison’s character is faced with a near-total referendum. But the show doesn’t follow through; Alison just remains frustrating, and her entire family continues to suffer as a result. It is puzzling what the viewer is to make of this controlling woman’s arc.
And in the final episode of the season, without giving too much away, Joe’s disorder is used as a vector for commenting on all special-needs children in the world, but also, specifically in small Northern English towns. It feels important, but if the show had hoped to comment on small-town life, why did it inject so much forced tea-cozy whimsy into the narrative?
“The A Word” is guilty of some sloppy plotting and an over-investment in maudlin plots better left to more masterful chroniclers of the charms of small-town life. But at its core, there is a fascinating and unique story of one child’s difficult-to-understand world, and his parents who are being dragged into compassion, kicking and screaming all the way.