SundanceTV’s New Autism Drama ‘The A Word’ is a Window onto How Families Communicate (Or Don’t)

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“You can’t hide behind any tricks. You just need a good story and good characters.”

If there’s one thing that unites us all, it’s our fondness for criticizing other people’s parenting skills. The A Word — a new SundanceTV drama about a small-town English family coping with their son’s autism diagnosis — provides plenty of fodder on that front. As the Hughes family struggles to come to terms with the reality that their five-year-old son, Joe (Max Vento), will likely need special care for the rest of his life, Joe becomes a “lightning rod for family tension,” in the words of a child therapist on the show. The A Word uses autism as a window onto the failure of so many families — let’s be real here, all of them — to communicate effectively.

Adapted for the BBC by British screenwriter Peter Bowker, The A Word — which premiered on SundanceTV last week and aired in the U.K. earlier this year — is based on an award-winning 2010 Israeli series created by Keren Margalit, Yellow Peppers (Pilpelim Zehubim). Margalit, an executive producer on The A Word who also wrote for the original Israeli version of HBO’s therapy drama In Treatment (BeTipul), based Yellow Peppers on her own experience raising a son with autism.

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“For a long time I couldn’t accept for myself that he was autistic,” Margalit says over the phone from Tel Aviv. “So I couldn’t write the words myself on paper. Only when I could say it could I also write it.”

The A Word adds to SundanceTV’s expanding network of international series, from The Returned (France) to Top of the Lake (UK/Australia/New Zealand) toDeutschland 83 (Germany) to, most recently, Cleverman (Australia). (The A Word is a co-production between the BBC and Keshet UK, Keshet International’s UK production company, which is part of the global wing of the Israeli production company Keshet Broadcasting.) Two seasons of Yellow Peppers have aired in Israel, and a second season of The A Word has already been commissioned by the BBC.

The A Word is a departure from most of SundanceTV’s series in its focus on everyday life. Alison and Paul Hughes (Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby) live in a modest flat in the Lake District; Alison’s father (The Leftovers’ Christopher Eccleston) runs a local brewery, where Paul’s worked since he was a teenager, and Alison runs a mobile café near the site where Paul is struggling to turn his dream of owning a restaurant into a reality.

The show’s elements are transplanted fairly directly from the Israeli version, which centers on a farming family (they grow yellow peppers, of course) living in a remote desert village with few resources for families with children who have special needs. Margalit says the show’s emphasis on regular people living in unglamorous circumstances — and dealing with a common, if life-altering situation — is a symptom of the Israeli TV industry’s budget limitations. “You can’t hide behind any tricks. You just need a good story and good characters. You have flour, sugar, water — that’s it, and you make a dish.”

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The A Word taps into a familiar anxiety: Am I living my life the way other people are living theirs? Is what’s normal to me normal to everyone else? When Alison’s sister-in-law (Sherlock’s Nicola Daniels), a doctor, gently suggests she take Joe to a specialist, Alison responds with defensive denial. The word “autism,” Margalit says, “becomes an assumption that it’s a dead end, and no one accepts a dead end.” Alison’s father, Maurice, is more willing to look the situation in the eye, but he’s a 50-something British man; when a doctor tells the family that Joe has trouble communicating his emotions, Maurice says, “That sounds like every man I know.”

Margalit recalls a story a friend told her when Yellow Peppers was airing its second season in Israel. A high-ranking member of the military, her friend noticed an officer in his crew acting strange, obviously bothered by something. He approached the officer and asked him what was going on, and the man started to cry. “My son is a yellow pepper,” he said. “He was just diagnosed.”

Ironically, a show about the failure of communication has itself provided a shorthand for the “a” word in Israel. Margalit was touched at the thought of “these two macho men” being able to “communicate without being too exposed.”

“The tagline of Yellow Peppers, was, ‘The battle to be normal can drive you insane,’” Margalit says. “It’s about communication, always. And sad stuff happening to funny people. It was never this drama about an autistic kid. It’s about this family which has the craziest set-up for communication and how fucked it is.”

The A Word airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on SundanceTV.

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