Cast: Max Vento, Lee Ingleby, Morven Christie, Christopher Eccleston
Number of episodes: 6
Autism! Such a relevant issue in todays times, also an issue which is widely used to grab attention of the viewers on TV. The A word strikes with its title. This show revolves around the dysfunctional Hughes family and how they struggle to come to terms with the fact that their little boy is autistic. Mind you, the show isn’t about autism or even about the autistic child. It’s about the kind of difference a special child brings into a family.
Joe is 5 years old. He lives in his own world of music, is loved by every member of the family, is autistic. He doesn’t communicate with anyone, and the most he does is repeat what is said to him. Paul Hughes (Ingleby), is a dotted father, a loving husband, who works very hard to build his own restaurant. Alison Hughes (Christie) is a strong woman, a passionate mother, who runs her own diner. Her world is Joe. Rebecca is Alison’s daughter from her first marriage, a high school student. We also have Maurice (Eccleston), who is Alison’s father. He owns a brewery which he lets his son, Eddie to run. As usual, the father and the son don’t get along very well with each having their own business opinion. Eddie lives with his wife Nicola, who works as a nurse. She is known for her radical honesty which isn’t liked very much by Alison. She is the first one to notice that Joe isn’t normal. Numerous arguments take place among the family members amidst which Joe lives, unperturbed.
The parents, in spite of knowing that their little boy isn’t like the other children, shy away from accepting it. We can see that they know at the back of their minds that their child is autistic, but they just don’t want to confirm it. They delay meeting doctors; they refuse any sort of help, especially Alison. Sometimes, Alison’s reactions are very irritating. She is blunt with her replies. She is very stubborn with her decisions. She is always in search of even the smallest of the things to reassure herself and the others that Joe is normal. She bans everyone to call her son autistic (hence the title of the show) as that would mean they are accepting that he is one. In spite of everything above, it’s very clear that every act of hers is just a mother who doesn’t want to label her child as special. On the other hand, Paul accepts the reality quicker than his wife and is ready to take the needed steps to help Joe in his day to day life. He visits a special school and believes it will better Joe at least a little. Several arguments happen between Paul and Alison which bring out their inner stress and emotional turmoil. Yet, the way they cope and stand together in handling Joe is very good to see.
There are many things which are shown nicely in the show, which touch upon very realistic issues. One is Rebecca and her life. She is in high school. She has a boyfriend and that makes her feel good. She loves Joe, her step brother, a lot and sometimes understands him better than their parents. When Paul and Alison get very busy in finding Joe the right remedy for his condition, they unintentionally begin neglecting Rebecca citing she is a big girl now. Whatever the age is, kids need someone to talk to and Rebecca feels the absence of her parents, especially when she breaks up with her boyfriend. She takes solace in talking to her uncle and aunt instead. Alison again comes across as a very poor mother who isn’t able to give equal attention to both her kids, and yet again, that’s the realistic mother. No mother can be perfect and for Alison, she fears Joe’s future and that’s her first priority. A big applause to the writer for giving a character like Alison, an imperfect mother, who loves her children unconditionally.
Joe! Joe! Joe! How can we not love him? Such a cute little boy and his antics are so endearing to see. His life is his music and he even sleeps with his headphones on. He sings along with every song, and at the end says the name of the album and even the year of release. He has several habits like he always closes the door once or twice before he enters. Even if the door is closed, he opens it, closes it, and then enters. He becomes restless if music is taken away from him. The speech therapist who comes to gauge him explains beautifully how Joe resolves to music when he wants to escape from a social situation. Her theory is Joe doesn’t like all the arguments and jabs taken at each other. He closes himself out through music.
The show takes a very interesting turn with the entry of the speech therapist, Maggie, as it moves the story forward. A school friend of Alison’s, who was once bullied by her, she puts across the hard reality in front of the family so quickly. For example, when Paul asks Joe to fix a piece in a jigsaw puzzle, Joe stands silently. Paul moves Joe’s hand and fixes the piece in the right place and claps and applauds Joe as an encouragement. Maggie says that’s now what Joe wants, encouragement. He wants to know what’s right and wrong. He wants to know how to communicate and communication has to be two-way and not one way. When Alison tries to force Maggie to become a full time therapist for Joe, she directly points out how it’s all about Alison all the time, what she wants and what she wishes. She says, Alison isn’t ashamed of Joe, but she is ashamed of herself. It made me think, how much ever you try to accept the truth, shame just walks with you in some form.
What really bring the show down are the tracks of the other characters. Maurice and his music teacher. Eddie and Nicola’s strained married life. Both these tracks have no bearing on Joe and hence the entire theme of the show. It would have been better if those characters had something to do with the main plot of the show. Also, every episode begins with Joe walking alone in the mountain road with his headphones on. Is that safe?
The performance of the cast is amazing. Max, Lee and Morven give an extraordinary performance. The supporting cast is equally good and they pull the viewers into the show very quickly.
The A Word is a great show for portraying autism in a very different way. If you think the show is about autism, it is not. It is more about family and relationships, and the compromises and adjustments the family has to make to give a comfortable life to an autistic child. Sooner they accept their child is autistic, better it is for the child.