Autism—or at least aspects of autism—has become somewhat of a go-to “character quirk” for TV writers. Represented as much by savantism as anything else, it’s used to imbue characters with an otherworldly ability in a gambit to make them unique when in fact these characters often come out the same: A character is given an aversion to social interaction in order to bestow them with incredible means of deduction or investigation. Think Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory, Brennan on Bones, Dr. Spencer Reid on Criminal Minds. It’s less a disorder and more of a superpower.
The A Word, based on Israeli show Yellow Peppers, deals with autism in the concrete. Five-year-old Joe Hughes (Max Vento) is not like his schoolmates, and everyone in his family seems willing to accept that there’s something wrong except his parents, Alison (Morven Christie) and Paul (Lee Ingleby). Joe is obsessed with music: He’s never without his trusty headphones, and most of what he says are song lyrics. He doesn’t take direction, not because he’s obstinate, but because he can’t. Joe is also a wider part of the family portrait, which is one of The A Word’s greatest strengths. It shares that quality with another dramedy that used an autism-spectrum disorder to great narrative effect: Parenthood. Like the Bravermans, members of the Hughes family have lives that both are and are not affected by Joe’s disorder. Joe’s diagnosis comes just as his uncle Eddie (Greg McHugh) returns to the picturesque vacation town of his youth to live with Alison and Paul. Eddie’s business has just failed, and his wife, Nicola (Vinnette Robinson), has just cheated on him with a colleague, but they’re trying to make a go of it, something that everyone in the small town full of strangers seems to know about. Joe’s sister, Rebecca (Molly Wright), neglected by her parents who are distracted with Joe’s disorder, is contemplating whether to sleep with her boyfriend, while their grandfather, Maurice (Christopher Eccleston), is contemplating whether to sleep with his voice teacher.
Importantly, The A Word is a tapestry—not one scene—reflecting that autism diagnoses affect how families live and view the world but do not necessarily consume them. There are still problems to have, petty and otherwise, in the day to day. This structure allows The A Word to take a break from the serious and real in order to be funny. Eccleston’s Maurice, a resolute man who wants to help his grandson and daughter but is seemingly incapable of tact, is a necessary humorous diversion, as is the wonderful McHugh, playing the nice guy who always finishes last.
Parenthood excelled at mirroring the many facets of a real family dealing with an autism-spectrum diagnosis as well. Max Braverman (played by the excellent Max Burkholder) had his own issues, just as Crosby Braverman (Dax Shepard) had his. What Parenthood could deliver were gut-punch moments of emotion. The eyes of Monica Potter, who played Max’s mom, Kristina, would well up in a number of tearjerker episodes. The A Word feels like it wants to deliver similar moments, but it remains on the precipice instead of going over the edge. This lack of catharsis gives The A Word a nice subtlety, something Parenthood was rarely interested in, but it also means that it can sometimes feel clinical rather than emotional and that the drama can seem engineered, as when Alison convinces Nicola to reach out to her former office flame—a doctor who specializes in autism—in order to get a second opinion for Joe.
To harp on the connection one more time, Parenthood and The A Word share another aspect that’s integral to each show’s success: an inherently affable cast of characters with their own foibles who are generally just trying their best to survive, even without the added pressure of Joe’s diagnosis. Alison is so driven to provide the best for her son, she doesn’t see the damage she’s causing. She doesn’t want anyone to know that Joe is autistic, because she knows what labels can mean in a small town (just ask Nicola, bombarded with well-wishers who congratulate her on working on a marriage she didn’t want people to know was in trouble). Alison may be overly focused, but it’s all out of love for her son, who she just wants to provide a good life for. As much as The A Word is about autism, it’s mostly about family, and that’s what makes it worth watching.