SPEECHLESS, the new sitcom created by Scott Silveri (Go On), comes with plenty of hype.
Foremost, it focuses on a teen with cerebral palsy (J.J. DiMeo), played by an actor with cerebral palsy (Micah Fowler), so it’s already a groundbreaking show. Issues concerning disabilities are front and center.
Second, it’s another TV opportunity for Minnie Driver, a year after NBC cancelled the cute but unpopular About a Boy.
And third, ABC is confident in this one. Besides Designated Survivor, no fall newbie has received more hype than Speechless. And nestled between The Goldbergs and Modern Family, it’s in prime position to soar on the network’s Wednesday family block, which also includes Blackish.
The block’s star remains Blackish, while Modern Family is sailing on an ocean of money and The Goldbergs now fits like a glove. In its pilot (cleverly titled “P-i-Pilot”), Speechless speeds through the premise quickly, but shows enough charm and depth to conclude it could hang with the big boys for a while.
All the hyped jokes get out the way immediately. The DiMeos are a speeding defense mechanism led recklessly by matriarch Maya (Driver). The cops even know to stay away from her, the crazy lady with the apt license plate of “SHE NUTZ.” Beside her is husband Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), who seems to float around when not doing whatever Maya commands. The kids are J.J., Ray (Mason Cook) and Dylan (Kyla Kennedy). The tropes are out in full here, with Ray as the brainy middle child and Dylan going for off-the-hinges youngest child. Meanwhile, J.J. is downright nasty at times, demeaning Ray for even the littlest of things.
This is the most interesting and nuanced element of Speechless, and it makes perfect sense. J.J. has to operate in a world where, typically, people either laugh at his disability or bend over backwards to make him feel special. He gets both in “P-i-Pilot,” including the excited teacher who in 2016 has no idea how to speak to a teen with a disability. It’s cringe-worthy but it makes its point – J.J. has to be on guard constantly, so humor is his equalizer.
In that sense J.J. – and really the whole family – is keenly written. Twisted, sometimes dark humor is a frequent trait in families caring for people with disabilities (Jimmy and Ray’s hobby of watching cars ruin their undercarriages on a bad-grade hill is inspired). Much of that, again, is the defense mechanism. That Speechless puts the humor in the open and treats the DiMaios without sitcom kid gloves shows an immediate sense of tone.
It’s only when someone treats J.J. like anyone else that he eases up, and we get that in Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough), the school groundskeeper who stands up to Maya and defends his turf. That stirs J.J. more than the mousy and sugary aide Jennifer (Dina Spybey-Waters), so we’re led to believe Kenneth is going to drop his school job to become J.J.’s aide, and as an extension, his voice.
It happens quickly, along with the family moving to a new – and crummy – house, the kids getting a new school, and Ray dealing with his first crush, Jillian (Lukita Maxwell), who of course is dating a mean jock. So it’s pretty forced, but as “P-i-Pilot” wraps up, Maya stops talking like a stereotype of Minnie Driver and becomes a two-dimensional character who knows she doesn’t consider Ray enough because everything’s usually about J.J. And it’s sweet, and you can see why this show works.
Plus it’s impressive. A pilot introducing us to a teen with cerebral palsy actually becomes more about the unappreciated middle child, and that turn doesn’t feel forced.
And, beside the wafer-thin aide Jennifer, and maybe the frightened school principal Dr. Miller (played with gusto by Marin Hinkle), the characters are believable and relatively sketched out. Even Kenneth gets a line in about driving-while-black. It seems Speechless won’t be afraid to say a few things.
Well, the hype told us that already.
Season 1, Episode 1 (S01E01)
Speechless airs Wednesdays at 830PM on ABC
Timothy, who grew up on The Golden Girls and Seinfeld, writes regularly about entertainment, arts and lifestyles for a number of publications.
Follow Timothy on Twitter: @timothymalcolm
Keep up with all of Timothy’s reviews here.
Timothy Malcolm | Contributor