Unhappy Families: The A-Word and Undercover
[--This article contains spoilers. Although I would have thought that was predictable.--]
Let me tell you about two families.
Paul and Alison Hughes live in the Lake District. They have a newly-diagnosed autistic son called Joe, who struggles with primary school, the wider world, and the human frailties of his parents – and they struggle a bit with him. There’s also their teenage daughter Rebecca; but they mostly ignore her. This is the simple premise of The A-Word which currently occupies the prime-time slot on BBC1 on Tuesdays.
(Joe, by the way, self-medicates with an MP3 player permanently tuned to his dad’s music collection, downloaded directly from XfM, c.2004. The Arctic Monkeys have probably bought themselves a gold-plated chip-shop, solely on the proceeds of this show’s soundtrack).
The Johnsons, meanwhile, live in the elegantly terraced Victorian hinterland between Hampstead Heath and Alexandra Palace. Their life, in Undercover (prime time on Sundays) is ostensibly more complicated. We know this partly because Nick Johnson, father of three, does lots of troubled pensive jogging™ in the parks.
Maya Cobbina (aka Mrs. Johnson), for her part, is a HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENCE LAWYER. We know this, because we first meet her pluckily trying to stay the grisly (failed) execution of an Louisiana death-row inmate. The innocent and kindly felon tells her to GO BIG and challenge the system that permits such injustice.
(The fact that BBC announcers are obliged to trail the show with phrases like ‘Maya attempts to “Go Big!” and address corruption’ positively thrills me. I wish they could go the whole hog and say ‘SUPERSIZE JUSTICE!’).
The Johnsons also have two teenage girls – one just gone to Anonymous College, Oxford – one who occasionally pouts and demands to be taken to parties in Crouch End. (Does anyone demand to be taken to parties in Crouch End? This seems the most unrealistic aspect of the show.)
The Johnsons also have an 18-year-old son with learning difficulties. He’s easily spooked and repeatedly told to go out and wait in the garden; sometimes with the long-suffering family dog. He then lurks by the patio doors, literally and figuratively window-dressing.
The Johnsons not only have three kids but a secret (agent). Nick is an undercover policeman, who fell in love with and married Maya when she was under highly dubious police observation (as a plucky black rights activist, back in the 1990s). And – you’ll never guess – his secret is going to be ... revealed.
But there’s more. For the government want her – the only black female lawyer in the country™ – to be the Director of Public Prosecutions. They are institutionally racist, and, dammit, it will look good. She’s never actually worked as a prosecutor; but governments are not sticklers about this sort of thing. She gives a plucky interview and – ba-boom! – she’s got the job. She then wants to prosecute the police, over the murder-in-custody of her ex-1990s-boyfriend; and there’s a conspiracy of silence; and a conspiracy of husband; and lots of unsavoury middle-aged men in suits (sinister!) who will stop at nothing to prevent her from discovering the truth.
So, we have two programmes about dysfunctional families. One ‘family drama’, one more ‘conspiracy thriller’.
One of them is really good.
So good, in fact, that it teaches us exactly what’s wrong with the other one.
The good show? I am, of course, talking about The A-Word.
And yet, it’s great.
The heart of the story is not AUTISM (or even Autism or autism) or even Joe himself, but Alison and Paul, and the fault lines in their marriage. The writing is subtle; and the characterisation of Alison is particularly impressive. She is slowly revealed as bullish and manipulative, like her annoying father (Eccleston); but also desperate to do ‘the right thing’ for her beloved son. She’s a complex character, an imperfect mother, as opposed to a good or bad one – indeed, an imperfect person – that’s a nice thing in a ‘family drama’.
Paul, meanwhile, is cheerful and amiable, but plainly relies too much on his charm and good humour. The differences in their approach to parenting – exposed by the extremes of Joe’s behaviour – drive a wedge into the seemingly healthy relationship.
The most recent episode culminated in a scene where Alison, having secretly taken a morning-after pill, admitted to Paul that she did not want another child. Two things impressed me. First, this argument genuinely felt like a release of simmering tensions, that had been built up – sometimes exposed and then swiftly covered – in the previous four episodes. Second, the brutal reality of it: the way Paul and Alison, slowly but surely, moved from resignation, and even affection, to trading cruel insights, finding each other’s weak spots. Love soured – briefly or permanently? – by latent bitterness, finally bubbling to the surface. That’s how emotions work, isn’t it?
Arguably, nothing much happens in The A-Word. But it has such great writing and performances – all very low key and self-effacing – so that you barely notice this is quality drama. Writing this, I look it up and find it’s by Peter Bowker, who wrote the peculiar and engaging Blackpool a dozen years back. I’d like to shake his hand.
Then we come to Undercover. First of all, what is it? Well, I guess it’s essentially a political drama. There are sinister government sorts, covering up the police’s (?historic?) undercover police operations against dissidents; there’s a murder of an ex-undercover policewoman who’s about to reveal all. But there’s also the very personal betrayal of Maya by Nick. There’s lots of stuff in the home; family scenes; but it’s really all designed to heighten the big question – when will Maya learn the truth about Nick? And what will she do? (probably to THE ESTABLISHMENT; but perhaps also to him)
Does it work? Well, ish. But it’s convoluted, glossy and superficial. Some of it is plain daft. Maya, appointed director of public prosecutions, drags her 1990s cop-murdered ex-boyfriend’s mum into the first staff briefing. She tells all the assembled lawyers of the DPP that they should work on this case.
All of them?
And, by the way, we haven’t heard anything about that for two episodes.
Maya also has a severe case of dramatic illness – she’s just now – just right now! – developed epilepsy. She can’t get the proper scan and meds because the MRI scanner reminds her of the gurney she saw used on her death-row client. She may die! Well, nice imagery and all, but importing random isolated perils like this is just bad writing. (Sophie Okonedo can do an impressive epileptic fit, mind).
When she returns to death-row in the latest episode, Maya takes her teenage student daughter; who is keeping an eye on her because of the epilepsy. Oookay. US penitentiaries are more easy-going than I realised.
Now, of course, with these sort of things, I’m being picky. Writers can take liberties, when it suits them. People like me can carp.
But there’s one fundamental problem with this programme you can’t really ignore: the family are all fakes. Nick, Maya, and their randomly generated children. This is what struck me this week, thinking about these two shows.
The Johnsons sit and eat food together; they chat; they walk the dog; they wait anxiously, and collectively, for the death-row inmate to die (I’ve had similar weekends with my in-laws). But they feel no more real, as a family unit than a glossy advertisement. Nick, of course, is fundamentally bogus – but you’re meant to believe that he has spent eighteen years parenting this family; that he has raised a son with learning disabilities; got one daughter through the awkward teenage years and through to Anonymous College; and probably spent at least some time with his wife in the process.
I don’t think you get any of that. It’s all rather cursory; waiting for the big reveal and dramatic consequences. We know pretty much nothing about the kids. I had to check that there even were two daughters in the show; more window dressing. Maya, likewise, seems to exist in two dimensions. She’s brave; a good lawyer; loving wife and mother. She’s got it all. She’s bloody perfect, really. Sketchy stuff. Easily-sketched stuff, in fact.
Steven Moffatt is the writer. He of Sherlock fame. He believes, I’m sure, in GOING BIG. Keep things fast-paced; ratchet up the tension. But I’m not convinced he really has any interest in people.
The result is that there’s more genuine gut-wrenching tension in Alison and Paul’s childcare arrangements in Cumbria than whether Maya throttles Nick, and/or brings down the entirety of the British establishment.