Sunday, August 28, 2016

Jenn's Pick: 5 Reasons You Should Be Watching The A Word

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Sometimes, you see commercials for a television show or film so often that it compels you to actually watch the content being promoted. Repetition truly is the easiest way to condition an audience, after all. So when I began to see commercials for The A Word while watching USA, SyFy, and Bravo shows on my cable provider's On Demand channel, I thought I would give the show a chance. The only name and face I recognized was that of former Doctor Who star, Christopher Eccleston. Still, I was in the market for a new drama series and this one seemed like it would be just what I needed.

As it turns out, The A Word really was just what I needed, and it's probably just what you need too. Family dramas have been few and far between since NBC's Parenthood ended. And there's something to be said about the quiet intensity and complexity of a show focused around a group of normal (albeit broken) individuals. I love superhero dramas, and I love post-apocalyptic dramas, and I love dramas that are intense and incorporate science-fiction elements into them. But I really love watching television shows with flawed, human characters focused on families that could very well be any of ours.

So here are five reasons why you should binge-watch BBC/Sundance TV's The A Word before the summer officially ends!

It's an engaging family drama with the perfect blend of comedy.

I talked above about the necessity for family dramas on television. I love watching shows with characters who feel familiar to me. And The A Word has a lot of those characters, and their problems are both relatable and engaging, mostly because of the strained family dynamic. Alison Hughes is a mother in denial that her young son, Joe, has autism. Paul is her husband who is trying his best to provide for his family and opening a gastropub. Maurice is Alison's father — critical of everything the family does, and using his unfiltered opinions in order to drive wedges between relationships. Rebecca is Paul and Alison's teenage daughter (Paul is not her biological father, however, which causes insecurity on his end and distance between the two) who is constantly overlooked by Alison in favor of Joe. Then there are Eddie and Nicola — Eddie is Alison's brother who returns with his wife to the Lake District where the rest of his family lives after Nicola has an affair. Eddie and Nicola's marriage is, understandably, strained and they spend a majority of the time in the series trying to deal with that infidelity and its fallout. Nicola, meanwhile, is headstrong and a doctor, managing to connect with Rebecca on a level that Alison cannot.

Though the show is categorized as a drama, there is a lot of humor within it as well, ranging from quippy one-liners to darkly humorous moments. The inclusion of comedy is important because otherwise The A Word would be bogged down by its own drama. Comedy, even brief comedy, breathes life into the series and it breathes something more important into it, too — realness.

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The characters are nuanced  and some are even unlikable.

I don't like Alison Hughes very much, if at all. She's self-absorbed and delusional, entitled and demanding. Though the first season aims to show us a humanized version of her in certain scenes (and it succeeds in those), overall she is one of the most insufferable characters on the show. Her growth occurs in spurts, just like real life. And the same is true of the other characters in the show. They're all nuanced, and they don't make good decisions all of the time. Sometimes they progress, only to backslide in the following episode. They yell and say mean things to one another, but they forgive and try to move forward — one step at a time. That's what makes this show so compelling. You're watching the journeys of these very human, sometimes unlikable, sometimes beloved characters and all you want is for them to become better versions of themselves in the process. Whether it's dealing with heartbreak, figuring out how to re-establish trust, or coping with denial, each character has the ability to grow into a better or worse person because of how they respond to their situations.

It's easy to binge watch.

This one is pretty self-explanatory — The A Word is only one season with six episodes that run about an hour and a half each. It's easy to watch and the stories suck you in so that you can watch one episode right after another. I never had the chance to watch the episodes when they aired, but caught up the day after. And the best part is that the show's first season ends on a satisfying note (with some threads dangling), leaving you looking forward to a second season without the angst of having to wait for the resolution to a finale cliffhanger.

It has quality writing.

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The A Word is a really smart, really well-written series. As I mentioned above, the characters aren't archetypes. And even Rebecca — whose character is, yes, the stereotypical rebellious teenager — has some amazing opportunities for character growth and layers to what she does and how she behaves. She loves and adores Joe, and he loves and adores her. It's refreshing to see her connect with Joe throughout the series, and also to see her connect with Nicola who begins the series as the family outcast. This is a family drama that is smart and also very in tune with its characters. That is what makes the writing so tight and impressive — the dialogue is snappy, quick, and also written entirely to suit the character who is saying it. Nothing ever feels forced or awkward, and the storylines are true-to-life.

There is nothing extremely revolutionary about the show. The A Word is simply about a dysfunctional family whose dysfunctions, quirks, and issues are on display for each other and their extremely small town. But that's precisely what makes the family drama so great — it isn't trying too hard. Its writers aren't trying to constantly push envelopes. The show doesn't stray into absurd waters just for the sake of plot and it doesn't sacrifice characters for the sake of a storyline. What it does extremely well is forge a connection with the audience through everyday drama and normalcy.

We all have family members like Maurice, who needle and poke at our insecurities and who say insensitive and politically incorrect things. We all know people like Alison who are so myopic but so driven. We know people like Paul who are perpetually optimistic to the point of delusion. We know Eddies, who allow their insecurities to make them become bitter and lash out at others. We all know people like Nicola, too, who love others deeply but keep them at a distance in order to guard her heart. And we know Rebeccas, people who are desperate to find out who they are and who they could be.

In summary: The A Word's writing team knows what it's doing.

It is (and isn't) a show about autism.

It's really difficult to explain what I mean when I say this. But I think the easiest way that I can is by comparing it to what I often say about The Fault in Our Stars — it's a cancer book that's not really a cancer book. While The A Word is a show about a young son who has autism, it's also not a show about autism. I thought about that when I first began watching the series. Of course, Joe's autism is the largest plot-related element of the first season, but it's less of a focal point and more of a catalyst. It's the thing that changes the characters around him, for better or for worse. His diagnosis is what the pilot is fixated on, but as the show progresses, it becomes less about Joe having autism and more about what his autism means for the people who love him most.

The A Word is also a show about all of the other "A-words" that define the characters and members of the Hughes/Scott family. There is Nicola, who is defined by her affair; characters who would rather avoid their feelings and issues than confront them; there are characters who are apathetic. Alison is ashamed of Joe's autism, while the entire family is filled with anger and angst. Autism is an important part of this series and though my family has never personally walked through a diagnosis of a loved one being on the spectrum, I feel like the show does a good job of portraying what it is like to experience that as a parent and family member. The show never seeks to present all of the answers to how to love or raise a child on the spectrum, but I honestly don't think it needs to. I don't think that The A Word wants to be the show where people learn all that they need to know about autism and what it means and how to grapple with the hard questions it raises.

But just like Parenthood did with the same subject matter, I think The A Word just seeks to raise awareness and to make the reality of the spectrum evident. The less stigma surrounding it, the more honest and open conversations can be had. And that is truly the most important thing that this show can accomplish.

Be sure to catch up on The A Word on Sundance TV (or BBC if you're across the pond)!


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