The A Word Season 3: Seek Out This Unique, Sweet, Wry UK Family Drama

TV Reviews The A Word
The A Word Season 3: Seek Out This Unique, Sweet, Wry UK Family Drama

It’s getting harder and harder to convince viewers to watch anything that isn’t on Netflix. And I get it, Netflix is easy, it’s ubiquitous, and you can binge and purge TV shows and movies at your leisure. But sometimes it is worth looking a little harder and seeking out great series on other platforms including, yes, traditional cable! This is most certainly true for The A Word, whose first two seasons are streaming on Amazon Prime, with a third season premiering now on Sundance TV.

The series follows a UK family navigating life with their son Joe (Max Vento) who is diagnosed with autism. Initially, parents Paul (Lee Ingleby) and Alison (Morven Christie) dismiss the then five-year-old’s communication issues and don’t believe anything is “wrong” with their son—despite their family’s attempts to suggest there may be a problem. The first season covers Alison and Paul accepting that Joe is different from the other children at his school, but that he is wonderfully unique in his own ways (like through his encyclopedic knowledge of 70s and 80s rock albums, into which he constantly escapes, and his love of walking). Still, The A Word never shies away from the difficulties that the family faces, especially as Joe’s parents attempts to understand their often inscrutable son.

Taking place in the stunning Lake District, the foggy moors and windswept mountains may mirror the tumult of the character’s inner lives, but the series is never dour. Running a short six episodes in each season (with a year or two break in between), The A Word is cheeky and clever, but most of all emotionally authentic. It’s a stunning character drama, one that deals with hard truths in matter-of-fact ways. There’s brash, tactless grandfather Maurice (Christopher Eccleston) finding love with a local piano teacher Louise (Pooky Quesnel), and growing close with her son Ralph (Leon Harrop) who has Down syndrome. There’s Alison’s affable brother Eddie (Greg McHugh) who goes through a divorce and finds new purpose helping his dad run the family pub. Meanwhile, Joe’s older half-sister Rebecca (Molly Wright) feels ignored in the first season, but by Season 3 has become her little brother’s rock.

Season 2 ended on a major cliffhanger that Season 3 breezes right past: Maurice having a heart-attack, which results in him becoming something of a fitness nut—yes, even more so than before. Beyond that, we see how Alison and Paul are faring two years after their divorce, with Alison in Manchester going to school while Paul lives with Maurice and fixes up a new house for himself and Joe. The handoffs between parents are hard, and it takes its toll on Joe, who even rejects his headphones and music at one point because of the stress.

On the one hand, The A Word is really excellent when it comes to the loving, ribbing banter among the family—the bad jokes, the awkwardness, the sweet moments of quiet understanding. But it’s also very intentional about how it shows the changes in Joe’s world specifically, including how his fantastic, patient, and kind teacher Heather (Julie Hesmondhalgh) walks Paul and Alison through interpreting his behaviors, because of his issues articulating his feelings. We also see how different family members come to relate to Joe, how plans often go awry, how it’s hard to relax and just let him be—and also how hard it is for parents to not blame themselves for everything their child goes through.

Of course, communication issues are at the heart of everything in The A Word, especially among the rest of the family—and, in Season 3, regarding new relationships that Alison and Paul find themselves cautiously exploring. Humor covers many wounds, expressing love is as foreign as taking flight, and understanding yourself and your own motivations remains a mystery to most. But there are many personal triumphs, too, especially regarding the show’s natural inclusions of many different disabilities: deafness, different expressions of autism, and more. There’s always plenty of humor as well as warmth, but it’s never saccharine. Characters are generally worried, unsure, and hopeful in turn, about pretty much everything. It’s real and it’s grounded (characters also repeat outfits, dress comfortably in workout gear, and consistently wear the same coats—a very relatable touch).

There are many shows that may appear similar to The A Word, or a notion that The A Word is just covering ground well-trod elsewhere, but that isn’t so. The way Peter Bowker’s series approaches this story and these lives is as refreshingly unique as it is full of understanding. A spinoff announced earlier this year will follow married life for Ralph and his now-wife Katie (Sarah Gordy), who also has Downs; that series, also created by Bowker, will include “new and emerging disabled writers” to ensure its authenticity. And that’s really the core of it: The A Word is exceptionally authentic in everything it does. Beautiful? Yes. Emotionally sound? Absolutely. Funny? Very much so. But above all, it rings true, and leaves you a little better off than you were before.

The A Word Season 3 premieres Wednesday, November 4th on Sundance TV.

Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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