If a friend asked for an exemplary episode of SPEECHLESS, the one you’d show to demonstrate what the show is about, why it exists, and what it’s trying to say, then “H-e-r-Hero” is the one to grab.
“H-e-r-Hero” has it all. It has heart, a good script with effortless dialogue, smart character moments, solid set pieces and, above all, is the funniest episode of the season so far.
“H-e-r-Hero” is about J.J., the title character, the speechless one with cerebral palsy, but it’s more about how everyone looks at J.J. To some he’s a real inspiration for those who can’t fathom getting up on Monday morning because it’s so hard. To others he’s not a hero at all, just a kid in a wheelchair trying to live life as a crude teenager. And to even more he’s some inanimate object, a representation of what a hero would be.
Or, as J.J. eloquently puts it, “inspiration porn.”
Ray wants to enter an essay contest so he can win and buy a hoverboard. And to win the contest, he opts to write about why J.J. is his hero, only because it’s easy and will garner unearned tears and praise. Only J.J. doesn’t want him to. He’s not his hero, J.J. says.
He’s right. J.J. knows he’s no hero to Ray, who’s self-sufficient, intelligent and independent. To Ray he’s just a big brother who bullies him around a little, teases him a lot, and in the end, still treats him like the most important thing in the world. Because he’s his brother. That’s all.
But Ray wants to win that hoverboard, so he presses J.J., but he ain’t having it (trying to run Ray over in the process). So instead Ray writes about Einstein, which isn’t earned either. It doesn’t matter, because some cocksure kid named Donald has the essay contest sewn up because he wrote about J.J. (even if he doesn’t know him at all).
(By the way, let’s suspend the disbelief of presentations of this essay contest taking up multiple days on the high school calendar.)
Donald’s fake essay angers J.J. further, since he ain’t no hero, just a kid in a wheelchair. So he and Kenneth devise a plan to make Ray win the essay contest by making Ray’s essay about J.J. In the end, Ray realizes J.J. really isn’t a hero, says so, and even though Donald wins the contest, Ray wins the contest of having a great family. Or something. It’s really sweet.
Most of all it’s funny. Kenneth and J.J. are one of the best pairings on the show, and we get some of their finest moments together, including Kenneth taking on the role of “the magical negro” helping “able-bodied white guy” Ray earn his prize. Speechless hasn’t shied from making small statements about racial inequality, and “the magical negro” feels right out of the book of Chappelle. It’s smart and winking, and Cedric Yarbrough sells it well (especially in the cute tag).
Even funnier is what Maya and Jimmy get up to, also in an effort to determine how the world should look at J.J. When J.J. breaks his wheelchair (in a funny cold open set piece involving an “extreme” track), Maya and Jimmy set out to get a decent replacement from their insurance company. The storyline starts slow (despite the usual suitable dopey-dude act by guest star Jim O’Heir), but ends up with Maya and Jimmy visiting a horse stable to badger the feisty insurance agent Janet.
And that’s when we get Minnie Driver hip-hop dancing in front of a horse. Which is easily the funniest five seconds of the series so far.
Crabby Janet is a track mom, and her daughter can’t beat Dylan. So she strikes a deal: Have Dylan throw a race against her daughter, and she’ll get the DiMeos a better wheelchair.
We know how this goes. Dylan agrees to throw the race (because J.J. matters most of all), but Maya and Jimmy think better of it and tell Dylan to get on her horse (pun intended). Dylan wins the race, the wheelchair thing is no big deal (but karma gets them a good wheelchair anyway) and the DiMeos are the lovable family that won’t lay down for The Man.
But none of that matters because the performances are so fun. Kyla Kenedy is perfect doing deadpan (“What does losing feel like? Does it hurt?”) and continues to hand in the most unexpectedly funny moments in the series (“I was in the yard in the beginning of this conversation.”) Jimmy and Maya make a good comic team (“I matter!”), and lest we forget that John Ross Bowie has another hilarious moment earlier in the episode (shying away after Ray denies his story of sacrifice).
Not every episode of Speechless can be about J.J. but not about J.J. It would be too predictable, too corny and we wouldn’t engage with the rest of the cast. But the series has earned its fins. It has swam through the tough waters of poorly written episodes that take our DiMeos to unwelcome places. It has gasped for air when all we wanted was a tightly knit storyline that didn’t go into a million directions. And it has taken its breathers, introducing new characters that add little to the series, building worlds before it could even hit an early winning streak.
All of that leads to “H-e-r-Hero,” which brings the series full circle while reinvigorating with smart, snappy and funny writing. It’s Speechless hitting on just about every cylinder.
Season 1, Episode 12 (S01E12)
Speechless airs Day 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.
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Timothy Malcolm | Contributor