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'The A Word': TV that understands autism

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston as Maurice Scott, Morven Christie as Alison Hughes, Max Vento as Joe Hughes in The A Word. (Photo: SundanceTV)

The breakout-hit fall network drama is ABC’s The Good Doctor, featuring a physician with autism. Millions of people — including, perhaps, you — are enjoying it. But did you know there is a drama that’s just as good about the same subject, and it’s now beginning its second season? I’m talking about The A Word, the British series that returns Wednesday night on Sundance TV. It’s about 7-year-old Joe (Max Vento), who has autism, and the ways in which his family — chiefly his parents, Paul (Lee Ingleby) and Alison (Morven Christie) — interact with him.

Set against the lovely backdrop of England’s Lake District, The A Word is a tale of working-class life with laughs as well as drama. Much of the humor is provided by Joe’s grandfather, Maurice, a cranky guy played by Christopher Eccleston, who is perhaps best known for his work in The Leftovers and Doctor Who. Maurice is frequently our way into the subject of autism, for those of us with little experience with anyone with the condition. Well-meaning but blundering, Maurice is the one who has to have things explained to him. Over the first season, he came to accept Joe’s diagnosis and became one of his most enthusiastic supporters and caregivers.

Now, in the show’s second season (you can catch up on Season 1 on Amazon Prime), Joe is becoming increasingly aware he’s not like the children in his school. “Autism, that’s not good,” Joe mumbles to himself, and when his parents figure out what he’s saying, they become alarmed that he’s picking up negative messages from his school or elsewhere. Much of the new season is about finding Joe’s place in his small-town world. But the show also opens up a bit in these episodes, shifting the spotlight away from Joe regularly, to offer a complex portrait of Paul and Alison’s marriage as well as their constantly shifting roles as parents. The A Word also develops a vivid subplot concerning Maurice’s romantic relationship with Louise (Pooky Quesnel), who has a son, Ralph, with Down syndrome. Ralph is played by Leon Harrup in a clever, knowing performance.

In its way, The A Word is every bit as good a family drama as, say, This Is Us. Its use of a diverse cast with multiple generations of family members is skillful; its tone switches between laughter and tears without seeming excessively manipulative. The A Word is flying under the radar in America thus far; watch it, and perhaps you’ll want to spread the word.

The A Word airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on SundanceTV.

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