While it took about five episodes, writer creator Peter Bowker’s The A Word achieves a level of tolerability. I felt on the cusp of almost giving a damn about what happens to any of the characters in the Hughes/Scott clan. The episode’s plot revolves around Joe Hughes’s (Max Vento) part time nanny Maya Petrenko (Julia Krynke) getting deported. It triggered two interesting plot lines in the episode, one of which actually dealt with the ramifications of having an autistic child.
In the wake of Maya’s impending deportation, Alison Hughes (Morven Christie) goes on an episode-long quest to have Joe learn to deal with his emotions. This causes a conflict with her husband Paul Hughes (Lee Ingleby), if Alison’s obsession with Joe being traumatized isn’t itself traumatizing Joe. This conflict embodies the strongest aspect of the show. Bowker doesn’t tell the audience which side is right, and clearly illustrates how murky parental judgments can be when dealing with a special needs child. On the one hand, Alison could simply be driven by her desperate desire for Joe to be a healthy, normal kid, or Alison can be trying to force Joe to be something he could never be. On the other hand, Paul’s acceptance of Joe’s condition can be either the sign of a loving parent, or one who’s given up. Later in the show, he confesses that he would like to father a “normal” child with Alison. Bowker seems to be making the point that from the outside either can be viewed as a heroic parent or as a selfish bastard.
Episode five also turns a very important corner. Throughout the first four episodes, the scripts had an underlying sense of blame. Yes, Joe was autistic, but the Hughes/Scott family was dysfunctional. With the singular exception of the neglect of Rebecca Hughes (Molly Wright), Bowker rarely linked these two facts. When he did, he tended to write the dysfunction as the cause of autism. In this episode, the audience is given just a slight taste of the kind of drain that parenting a child like Joe can place on a family.
Bowker has finally gotten around to actually looking both at Joe’s autism and at its repercussions for everyone in Joe’s world. The episode spends a lot more time illustrating Joe’s obsessive-compulsive disorder; it’s the first time Bowker actually illustrates the extent to which Joe is trapped in his own world. Being pulled over by the police, having his nanny deported, or being interviewed by his mother, nothing matters but his music. Bowker confronts his audience with the truth that all of his characters have been dealing with for years. Joe isn’t going to change. There’s no Hallmark moment. He’ll constantly require a great deal of energy and attention.
The second conflict that Maya’s deportation triggers is between Alison and her father Maurice Scott (Christopher Eccleston). Alison runs over to the police station and confronts Inspector Bob Herd (Adam Kotz). It turns out that her father and the police chief are best mates. Alison tries to leverage her father’s friendship to get Maya released and not deported, in one of the least flattering portraits of Alison in the series. While she’s been demanding and bullying before, during all the other times, she seemed to have a keen, almost Machiavellian ability to read the person she was confronting. In this situation, the more she talks, the more irate inspector Herd becomes. She never picks up on this, and just continues with her demands.
This triggers a confrontation between her and her father — he tells Alison that the world does not stop at the mention of “Joe” — as well as two more subplots involving Maurice. The first involves his relationship with his music teacher, Louise Wilson (Pooky Quesnel). Later in the episode, Maurice takes Bob out to a pub as a form of apology. He runs into his friend with benefits and music teacher, Ms. Wilson. Explaining things are over, he gives Bob permission to pursue Louise, but as it turns out, Maurice cannot emotionally handle the idea of his mate hooking up with his ex. There’s a slightly disturbing undertow to how Bowker constructs their relationship. While the same age, it’s clear that Louise is far more mature and controlling then the bewildered and rather clueless Maurice. Even though they are roughly the same age, on an intimacy maturity level, Maurice might as well be one of her adolescent students. This, combined with the fact that her last dalliance was with another significantly younger student, suggests that Louise is as flawed as Maurice.
The second conflict is between Maurice and his son Eddie (Greg McHugh) over who should run the family brewery. To date, Bowker had done a great job of writing Eddie as a well-intended schmoe. Without the assertiveness of his father, sister, or wife, Eddie seems constantly overmatched. A passive-aggressive guy overwhelmed in a family of alpha personalities, his conflict with Maurice seems a bit forced. Later in the episode, his wife, Nicola Daniels (Vinette Robinson) tells him, and the audience, how much better he is now.
This is a welcome addition to the series. For much of the series, Christopher Eccleston has been around mainly for comic relief. His character seemed very much in the vein of David Ogden Stiers’s role as Mr. Bauer in Kenny Schwartz and Danny Jacobson’s Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, in which a big name star was brought in to play a fairly gratuitous character in order to ensure that the project got off the ground.
Certainly giving more spotlight to Eccleston helps the series, although there are still some major holes in the script. With the exception of Rebecca and Paul Hughes, Bowker seems disinterested in making any of the characters remotely likable. At least Eccleston is entertaining when he’s distasteful. The A Word still seems to fall a bit short of its ambition, but at least there are a few moments when I laughed. Maybe in the season’s last episode, Bowker will give me a reason to give a damn.