I was young when Life Goes On had its run on ABC (I was four when it premiered in 1989), but I watched every week, captivated by Chris Burke’s amazing work as Corky, the first major character on TV with Down syndrome. Burke was a groundbreaking actor, not just because he himself had Down syndrome, but also because he brought something completely new to television. He brought not only tolerance, but acceptance.
Around the same time my mom made me befriend a boy in my elementary school with a disability. And I say “made me” because I was absolutely opposed – all the kids stayed either away from him or teased him, and I didn’t want to be associated with that kind of abuse. Of course, I experienced some of the same abuse as a kid, unaware that my “differences” (book smarts without social awareness, a feminine disposition, being the teacher’s pet) made me a target. But I didn’t see the world that way; I saw it as the “normal” people like me and my bullies, and the “slow” or, as we said a lot as kids, “retarded” people like the boy my mom made me befriend.
Yet I watched Life Goes On and loved Corky, and not in the “oh he does funny stuff” way. I cried when he hurt (and boy did he get hurt sometimes). I smiled when he had victories (he had some great ones).
But that’s just the problem. Television – and by extension entertainment – can make us feel something intangible. We may cry or smile, laugh or groan, but often that feeling fades once the episode ends. Rarely do we watch something and feel stirred to take real action, like advocate for programs that help people with Down syndrome, or even just say hello to someone the other kids ignore.
When I first heard about SPEECHLESS, I knew I had to watch. And I think part of me wanted to feel something tangible. Even though J.J. has a movement disorder (cerebral palsy doesn’t necessarily mean learning disorders, something Speechless has made a point to say), he can be – and has been – treated differently, labeled “other,” made to feel different from all the other humans not in wheelchairs and able to speak from their mouths. So part of me, selfish as it may be, wanted to feel moved by J.J.’s plight to act, especially during a turbulent time for any and everyone who may be “different” from me.
Speechless has done a fine job making me feel for J.J., but it’s done an even better job making me feel for the entire DiMeo family, who themselves struggle with how they interpret J.J. We’ve seen this primarily through Maya’s eyes, as her challenging relationship with her progressively independent son has been the dominant arc of the last phase of the first season. Everything about that arc up until the season finale, “C-a-Camp” has been well written, measured and played strong by Minnie Driver and Micah Fowler. But in “C-a-Camp,” we get a wonderful finish with character-driven twists and a payoff worthy of Speechless’ off-centered tone.
Plus we get more solid work from Driver and Fowler, and some seriously underrated emotion from John Ross Bowie, Mason Cook and Kyla Kenedy. This cast may have seemed questionable on paper (another attempt at mom-izing Driver, a eye-rollingly obvious three-child setup), and at first it was a little hard to like the DiMeo family, but goodness, this is a fantastic television family. I want to spend several seasons with them.
And that’s what makes Speechless often fantastic. It has made me feel tangibly about the rights of people with disabilities, and it has continuously made me feel intangibly about everyone in the main cast.
“C-a-Camp” is a basic plot, as we’ve basically been running the arc to close. J.J. is going to summer camp, a hard thing for Maya (and the family) not just because the kid with cerebral palsy who’s always had family around him will be leaving family for a couple months, but also because the kid is leaving for a couple months. J.J. is acting out, too, being mean to his family before leaving to avoid being sad. Maya struggles to figure out the best course of action, fighting with J.J. before leaving him at the airport with the rest of the family.
Truthfully she’s trying to do what she thinks J.J. wants, but J.J. is a kid. He’s scared. He’s nervous. He wants to go it alone. But ultimately, man, he wants to see his mom one last time.
Maya finally sees this thanks to a progressively tropical Kenneth (by the way, Cedric Yarbrough hasn’t gotten enough credit for nimbly balancing the fun-guy-comic-relief persona with the touching friendship he has with J.J.), and the two are off to the airport to catch up to J.J. before the family leaves him at camp. There’s some tired jokes about Maine in there (yes, there’s more to do in Maine than camping), but it sets up Maya and Kenneth to arrive at the family-camper goodbye bonfire via helicopter.
(And honestly, the helicopter may feel over the top, but it’s a nice dose of ridiculousness in the middle of an emotional scene.)
Maya doesn’t give a big love speech (her “I’m doing this for me” bit is spot on), and it makes for a beautiful moment completely within the tone of the show. It’s perfect.
And the whole arc was perfect. Speechless hinted at J.J.’s search for independence throughout the season while characterizing J.J. as capable of being mean, but only recently has his independence become plot. Give the writers credit: It never felt like an afternoon special, was driven primarily by character, and it wasn’t easily cleaned up in 22 minutes. In fact, last week’s “M-a-May-Jay” could’ve ended the arc prematurely, but “C-a-Camp” underscores something we all know about issues in deep relationships: they never just end clean, but they return, fester, make things more complicated and ask for greater nuance. That’s exactly what this arc did.
I’m sure Speechless will revisit it next season.
Hopefully Speechless gets past Ray’s “I need a girlfriend” thing now. Not that it’s not realistic (God knows having a girlfriend was all I cared about in my teenage years), but Mason Cook showed a lot of versatility in season one. He can be the black sheep, show plenty of brotherly compassion and even brood with a dark side. He doesn’t need to be defined by his constant search for a gal.
That’s how it unfolded in “C-a-Camp,” and it did so clumsily. Ray has a hard time talking to girls (duh), something revisited at the top of the episode. So then he decides to play the old 40-Year Old Virgin game of acting mysterious when meeting a girl (thankfully he didn’t say “I don’t know, do you like to ‘do it yourself'”?), which goes nowhere (of course). Finally, the girl of his dreams magically appears as a counselor at J.J.’s camp. Ray works up the courage to ask her to be a summer pen-pal girlfriend. She accepts. Yay.
This plot feels forced just to get Ray his girlfriend. Let’s just hope he doesn’t magically lose said girlfriend over the long summer, forcing him to look for more potential girlfriends. And hey, maybe we can get some smart mileage out of this.
Finally, Jimmy and Dylan have a chance to go nuts in Miami for about 20 minutes during a layover, as daughter turns lemons into lemonade for the dad who always does everything to save hardship. It’s a cute C-plot and doesn’t take up too much time to be consequential, even if the Jimmy-Dylan pairing is well worn to this point.
Hopefully season two gets Jimmy and Dylan into more spotlight plots, because Bowie and Kenedy are each a hoot.
But that’s an issue for the fall. Speechless has more than earned its keep and will return at its usual spot, sandwiched between The Goldbergs and Modern Family on Wednesday. And then, we’ll get more depth, more off-centered humor, more character-driven plot and much more to feel. Thanks for offering that opportunity, and for being the best possible Speechless.
Season 1, Episode 23 (S01E23)
Speechless airs Wednesday 830 PM on ABC
Timothy, who grew up on The Golden Girls and Seinfeld, writes regularly about entertainment, arts and lifestyles for a number of publications.
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Timothy Malcolm | Contributor