“The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.”
— Octave (Jean Renoir) La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game)
Some televisions shows or movies are like food poisoning. Immediately after watching them, you feel maybe mildly irritated, but a day or so later the full force of the offensiveness kicks in. This is the dynamic that played out in “Lost”, the season finale of The A Word.
Writer Peter Bowker envelopes his audience in an opaque fog of manipulation. The episode’s action revolves around Joe Hughes (Max Vento) going out for a walk and getting lost, which is of course every parent’s nightmare. It allows Bowker to play several tried and true clichés. The Hughes/Scott clan band together, realizing how much they love and need each other. Faced with the potential demise of her son, Alison Hughes (Morven Christie) has an epiphany: she comes to the understanding that she loves Joe unconditionally.
To be fair, Bowker does add a few decent moments. Well, three, to be exact — one comic and two dramatic — which keep the entire plot from being overly sentimental and hackneyed. After Joe returns home, rejoicing his return Alison and his father Paul Hughes (Lee Ingleby) confess to one another. At one point, Paul makes the comment that he told God he’d go to church every Sunday, but he doubts God was going to hold him to that promise. That slight nod to cynical self-interest in a deep vat of saccharine sentimentality was well-timed and refreshing.
The two dramatic moments also work well. First, the fight between Alison and her father Maurice Scott (Christopher Eccleston) seems both realistic and well-acted. Both Ms. Christie and Mr. Eccleston are able to use their bodies to say far more than the script. Their skill, combined with Bowker’s keen observation of human rationalization, creates a highly compelling exchange. The strength of this scene is that while it’s triggered by Joe’s disappearance, it’s not dependent on it. By that I mean that the stress of a lost child acts only as a way to amplify the dynamic between the two characters, both of who may — under layers and layers of a pathological need to force the world to bend to their wills — actually be nice people. In either case, their need to control obliterates their better instincts.
The other essential moment is Joe’s disappearance. About halfway through the episode, the family is trying to assist with the police and volunteers. For about two or three minutes, Alison talks around Joe’s autism. It’s a great way of showing that even in a severe crisis, shame dictates her actions. After a few minutes of confounding reactions, it becomes clear to the police that Joe is in fact autistic. The circumstances allow Bowker to illustrate just how deeply engrained is Alison’s shame at having an autistic child. While the plot line allows this revelation, it by no means validates Bowker using such transparent sentimentalism.
The episode starts with Paul opening his gastropub. The entire family is there to support Paul’s day of triumph. It’s clear, though, that Joe isn’t well suited for this kind of event. Maurice volunteers to babysit his grandson during the opening, but instead runs over to his ex-friend with benefits Louise Wilson (Pooky Quesnel). These few minutes of the show exemplifies Bowker’s writing at its best. Maurice and Louise both have a good deal of affection for each other, and neither is malicious. Yet, due to both of their flaws, they can’t escape hurting each other.
Unfortunately, Bowker has the tendency to take this sensitivity of how good people can make bad decisions into making blind apologies for abhorrent behavior. There are three moments where Bowker shows people behaving indefensibly. Only in one does Bowker indicate there’s something wrong with it. The worst behavior was by Alison. Joe is left with Louise’s son Ralph Wilson (Leon Harrop) a much older child with Down’s syndrome. The audience finds that a few years back, Ralph had been accused of inappropriately touching a girl on the bus. No charges were brought and according to Louise, it was just a few school bullies trying to screw with him. At one point Maurice blurts out all of this to Alison. Alison then goes off to confront and interrogate Ralph.
In the set up and the scene itself, Bowker finds a few ways to offend the audience. The most obvious is the script; one can imagine the mental gymnastics involved in trying to figure out a way to make a child with Down’s syndrome a threat. The solution? Have him be a sexual predator. Second, Alison learns of the accusation through Maurice. The indication is that Maurice is so guilt ridden, he’s willing to violate the trust of his friend and ex-girlfriend in order to get Alison to blame someone else. Alison then goes over to confront Ralph, perhaps so blinded by her own grief she’s willing to emotionally devastate a child.
It’s possible Bowker intended to write about a family with two terrible human beings. It wouldn’t be entertaining, but at least knowing Maurice and Alison are utter bastards would give the series some level of consistency. Instead, Bowker completely flubs this angle by having Louise state that Alison’s response is understandable. This makes absolutely no sense. It seems so unrealistic for a mother to have empathy for the tormentor of her son.
There are a few other minor plot lines where Bowker’s addiction to apologizing for inexcusable behavior plays out. One involves the actions of Joe’s older sister Rebecca’s (Molly Wright) boyfriend Luke Taylor (Thomas Gregory), who’s devolved into more and more of an ass as the series moves on. Unfortunately, Bowker can’t resist having him play a pivotal role in finding Joe, because moral ambiguity rules everything in Bowker’s world.
There’s also a dramatic confrontation between Eddie Scott (Greg McHugh) and his adulterous wife Nicola Daniels (Vinette Robinson). Eddie continues to be a crescendo of self-criticism and doubt, and Nicole the level-headed, analytical one. The main question throughout the series hasn’t been why she cheated on him, but why on earth did she ever go back? This really doesn’t fit into the awful category, because at least their dysfunctionality is self-contained and doesn’t affect other people.
Ultimately the first season of The A Word disappointed. The six episodes have been governed by a kind of blame-the-victim nihilism. A woman commits adultery, and concentrates on her husband’s lack of ability to handle the betrayal. A girl loses her virginity to an ass, and concentrates on how confused and well meaning the boyfriend is. A woman emotionally abuses a child with Down’s syndrome, but we’re supposed to look beyond her actions to her motives. Everyone, it seems, has their reasons. Clearly, Bowker has yet to learn that there are no good reasons for actions that are this selfish, mean, and hurtful. Maybe he’ll learn this before season two.