‘The A Word’ season 2 review: Gentle, intelligent drama about autism

Max Vento stars as Joe Hughes in SundanceTV's "The A Word." / SundanceTV

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Alison (Morven Christie, “Grantchester”) and Paul Hughes (Lee Ingleby) are parents of 5-year-old Joe (Max Vento), who falls on the autism spectrum. In the first-season finale, Joe disappeared while under the care of his grandfather Maurice (Christopher Eccleston), although he was eventually found in a bus shelter near the hamlet in the north of England where they live. Joe has an encyclopedic knowledge of British rock, and one way his parents connect with him is by reciting song lyrics to him (which he instantly knows). Alison and Paul — at first refusing to believe that Joe has autism — have gradually accepted that he does. They get some help from family members, including Maurice, Paul’s brother Eddie (Greg McHugh) and wife Nicola (Vinette Robinson). Not much, though: They have their own troubles.

The second season picks up two years later. Joe, now 7, is in grade school, and still loving the tunes.

MY SAY “The A Word” is set in the Lake District of Cumbria, in the far north of England, where the barren mountains — called “fells” — almost seem to tumble over one another, like waves, crashing into the Irish Sea. For viewers, this offers at least two benefits. The first is obvious: It’s a stunning backdrop.

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The second: Beneath those ramparts, a human-scale drama unfolds. Perspective seems important in this context. The fells are towering, but the sight lines also stretch off into the distant. This forces the eye (yours) and attention to the foreground. Without distraction or clutter, the Hughes’ lives suddenly (or in this show, gradually) become comprehensible. It’s easier to hear what they have to say, easier to empathize and to understand — both them and Joe. As such, autism morphs from something that’s otherwise clinical into something that’s almost normal. From that springs optimism, and “The A Word” is nothing if not optimistic.

In a scene late in Wednesday’s episode, Alison says that Joe — even with his behavioral eccentricities — is an important member of his class because he has “a different way of looking at the world, doesn’t care much about sex or peer group approval or, God help us, football cards.”

Much like the first season, the second is about coming to terms, and not just with the A word, but with their evolving identities. At 7, Joe has begun to glean that he is different. In role play with each other, Alison and Paul practice how they might explain that difference to him, but they really end up exploring their own feelings.

There’s some power and beauty in this show — and not just the scenery either, but in the humanity itself. Far from lives of quiet desperation, these are lives of quiet determination.

BOTTOM LINE A gentle, intelligent drama about autism, family and love.