As SPEECHLESS finishes off its first season (with a likely second on the way), it’s coming back to form nicely.
“M-a-May-Jay,” the season’s penultimate episode, hits all the right notes: there’s a terrific A plot about J.J. and Maya living on the late-season arc, an enjoyable and light B with Ray and Dylan playing off one another, and Jimmy gets a little time to stand out in the C. And this time, unlike past episodes with too much unraveling, everything flows well and feels comfortable. The DiMeos are comfortable. They’re a hang. I think we’ve hit a stride.
This may be Micah Fowler’s best half-hour to date, with his J.J. trying desperately to show he’s independent enough to go to summer camp. This doesn’t rub Maya the right way, as she looks forward to spending the summer with her son (thus the “May-Jay”). J.J. recruits Kenneth to help, but Maya sees through that ploy. Then, when J.J. attempts to prove to Maya he can do things without help, he tips his chair over, injuring his knee and sending him to the hospital.
Speechless has done a great job chronicling life with someone with special needs, and “M-a-May-Jay” builds on that success. To the DiMeos, a trip to the hospital is old hat, and while they seem at home there (including a fun Jimmy montage we’ll get to), there’s still the nod that any hospital visit isn’t welcome.
Take Ray and Dylan, who engage in battle because Ray happens to run faster than Dylan (there’s some fun “modern dance” in the story, too).
Before Dylan can pull the trigger on a plan to beat Ray in a race through the hospital, they share a believably serious moment thinking about J.J.’s health issues. When Dylan beats Ray back to J.J’s room, focus immediately shifts to their brother’s well-being. Ray loves being the first to visit J.J. after a procedure because it’s when J.J.’s is sweetest. It’s a tender detail sold well by Mason Cook, with other great moments laced in (Ray kissing Dylan on the forehead, Ray putting his head on a happy J.J.’s chest). This really is a good sitcom family.
But back to J.J. and Maya. There’s no doubt J.J.’s going to win the battle, but the road to get there has a few natural twists (and one slightly forced). The slightly forced twist is Kenneth rendered completely unable to handle J.J. in a hospital bed, as it seems a stretch to think he’s gone nine months without having this kind of serious interaction with J.J.
Otherwise this story is fantastic. J.J. doubts himself after being admitted to the hospital and having to undergo surgery, but Maya turns him around by being honest. Her speech could be read as treacly, but Speechless has built up so much good will with how they’ve handled J.J., and this particular arc has been progressing for a month. Thus, just about everything about the A plot is earned.
Especially the button, a solid runner that symbolizes J.J’s independent accomplishments (seen partly in a fun opening montage in which Kenneth juggles and we receive confirmation that the family will have a dog for a little while).
Along with that, Minnie Driver commands the screen during her scenes. Her work in “M-a-May-Jay” is some of her best in the series.
Jimmy-centric stories have been relatively good this season, and welcome, as John Ross Bowie plays the patriarch with the perfect balance of dry wit and aloofness. This week is no different, as he finds himself wanting to put on a good show for new guy friend Dane.
It’s Jimmy to a T: He doesn’t want to hang with some guy on some kind of setup play date, but he finds himself turned onto having a pal (thanks to Dane’s stroke (or “juice”) at a restaurant, which gets them the finest food and a cover of “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the house band). Thus the remainder of the story is Jimmy trying to find his stroke, and it comes at the hospital.
The payoff is decent, with Jimmy taking a blindfolded Dane through the hospital to have a steak dinner planned for a delivering mother-to-be. It also helps that Dane is a game Paul F. Tompkins, turning his character into a somewhat smarmy but ultimately harmless middle-aged guy with privilege. It’s the right choice to play off Bowie, who seems to find the right amount of giddiness saying “Dane!” after receiving another table’s souffle.
All of this is grounded in reality, and when Speechless keeps its episodes close to earth – and its characters – it’s a fun, comfortable show.
That’s where “M-a-May-Jay” rests. It’s a wheelhouse episode that strikes a few emotional chords and gets us prepared for the season finale.
Season 1, Episode 22 (S01E22)
Speechless airs Wednesday at 8:30 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