The back half of this first season of SPEECHLESS has been pretty weak.
We bottomed out with the previous episode, “D-i-Ding” from a few weeks back. It was foolish, off brand and, probably worse, was devoid of any heart. That’s been the saving grace of Speechless – when the show doesn’t quite hit the mark, at least there’s a heaping dose of warm marshmallow fluff to gum up the cracks.
So we get to “C-h-Cheater!,” which definitely started like another poor, back-half episode of Speechless. J.J. is outed as a test cheater (in the most painstakingly obvious way), Ray falls into a pyramid scheme (again, in the most painstakingly obvious way) and Dylan becomes the leader of a bunch of “it” girls (not so obvious and kind of quirky).
But it felt a little too much like “How do you do, fellow kids?”
Anyway, it was all going the same way as usual. Until a major turn.
And not just “oh, here’s the heart” major turn, but a true-blue, completely welcome change of tone.
More of this, please.
At least over its first several episodes (the front half of the season typically has the best ideas anyway), Speechless not only acknowledged J.J.’s disability, but it also wrestled with the implications of J.J.’s disability on everyone around him – classmates, potential friends, teachers, and even his own family members, though more than anyone the DiMeos have been pretty tuned in about the eldest child. Point is, Speechless was, early on, about a kid with a disability, but it wasn’t about him alone, and that was great.
Then it got out of hand. Focusing on secondary characters is necessary for any series, but Speechless went to extremes: Ray gets caught up in yet another school project … Kenneth is the manager of a supermarket … And the only storylines that referenced J.J.’s disability were sadly limp.
In “C-h-Cheater!,” Ray gets caught in the pyramid scheme selling bad jewelry, and he goes off on Jimmy because, unlike his father, he has “drive” (for making money). That stings. So Jimmy shows Ray some windows he designed back when he was trying to be an architect. In that nice father-son moment, Ray reveals why he wants money: he’s worried about J.J.’s future and feels as if he’ll shoulder heavy responsibility.
The final moments of “C-h-Cheater!” focus on this plight. Dylan’s concerned. Maya and Jimmy have a real family talk with the kids about J.J., and just as the object of discussion comes into the house. Hearing Maya say J.J. probably won’t be able to live alone seems to really cut J.J. deep, so he heads back outside to catch Kenneth. He wants to chat with him. That’s where we leave it.
And now there’s a serious thread in Speechless, one laced both with sweetness (seriously, the kids caring that deeply that soon) and gravity. It’s extremely welcome and should be an interesting way to close out the first season.
J.J.’s initial storyline (he’s caught cheating by basically listening to Kenneth push him to the right answers on tests) is really weak. Teachers are exposed as giving preferential treatment (groan) while Kenneth gets really excited about how much high school knowledge he’s accumulating (yeesh).
Meanwhile the Dylan storyline (with the “it” girls) becomes this half-important monologue about being yourself and a half-eye-rolling takedown of bad fashion. But it’s good that Dylan continues to get strong character moments, as she’s maybe the strongest character on the show.
Jimmy’s plight (nobody seems to take his airport job seriously, including himself, though he tries to possibly?) continues to be somewhat interesting. The guy is caring for his family now, and that’s it, but clearly there’s a wild dreamer stuck in there. His moment with Ray was earned.
The running themes of Maya looking really good (via Kenneth) and Kenneth’s “jazz brunch” are nice pieces, too. Without the mammoth turn in tone, those things all would’ve saved “C-h-Cheater!” from being another poorly graded episode. As it is, though, it’s pretty good with an outstanding finish. And now we have a lot more to look forward to as the season inches toward its end.
Season 1, Episode 19 (S01E19)
Speechless airs Wednesdays at 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.
Timothy Malcolm | Contributor