It’s a little surprising that it took SPEECHLESS this long to get to “the R word,” but it also makes sense.
Speechless has demonstrated we live in a world where people with disabilities (developmental and physical) are included much more holistically in the social fiber than in previous times. That’s not to say they still face discrimination – because they certainly do – but human understanding of disability (and our ability to reduce our perceived limitations of people with disabilities) has certainly evolved, and Speechless recognizes this. J.J. is part of the strata. He’s independent. People seem to enjoy his company rather than shun him.
Still, there are obstacles, and Speechless has deftly approached some of them, including our habit of overcompensating the presence of person with a disability because of our own guilt. It happens in “P-r-Prom,” and is the reason J.J. is a little fed up with the whole thing. He gets it – people love seeing him, and a little too much. But seriously guys, come on.
Then there’s “retard (or retarded),” a slur that still feels like a stomach punch to plenty of people who love people with disabilities.
To this day it makes me queasy. It reminds me of the days when a Down syndrome diagnosis meant you were not only considered “less than,” but you were in many cases institutionalized, pushed away from the general population. It’s a signal that the person saying the word not only is being flippant about its historical use, but can’t even be bothered to eliminate it from his or her vocabulary. To keep “retard” or “retarded” in your arsenal as slur (there is a classic definition of the word as a verb) is to acknowledge some inability to evolve.
That brings us to the most pressing plot of “P-r-Prom,” in which Ray meets a girl (this happens a lot), but this one – named Riley – recently had some reconstruction done and now is unknowingly attractive. Thus, she digs Ray. But then she says “retarded.”
But here’s the leap in logic – Riley apparently is an expert debater, and she uses that skill to quiet Ray so she can make out with him. Sure not everyone is perfect, but how does this Riley, who clearly has some intellectual capacity and a way with words, so flippantly use “retarded”? It feels a little more like the writers shoehorned this plot point for a character who doesn’t quite fit.
Still, the point does give us some decent character growth with Ray, who at first is unable to form his own opinion, blocked by his desire for physical exhilaration. He instead has to check in with Dylan – working as a “bartender” at prom, which gives her the usual hilarious and on-point character moments (dishing out advice, brushing off louses, being really good at mixing drinks) – and J.J., who of course is clear-minded and kind. As Riley awaits his kiss, Ray finally forms his opinion, and he decides he can’t lock lips. The scene is slightly awkward, but it makes its point – Ray is a good brother and will seemingly always land on the side of ethics.
Plus, Speechless gets to address “the R word,” which is important, and at least nobody just flat out uses it to J.J. (the opening scene in which the DiMeos think they overhear someone say it at a restaurant is a nice twist on it).
J.J., meanwhile, gets sick of being the center of attention, so he befriends a bunch of misfits who are having bad prom nights (there’s the hot guy who’s been dumped, the goth kid who also is probably into roleplayer games, and a tall girl who people insult because she’s tall). It’s a common story with a couple cute twists (the hot guy comes on too strong to the group with a classic “You guys have become my best friends” trope … the goth kid is completely aware of his misfit status), but ultimately it’s a lot of nothing for an obvious payoff.
That payoff is the tall girl actually wants to dance, but she’s self-conscious. In comes J.J. to the rescue, using his ability to attract attention (and a disco ball Jimmy installed on his wheelchair) to bring the party to her and just be herself.
The lesson is that everyone has their own hangups, and sometimes you need a different perspective to understand that. Well, of course, that’s basically the premise of Speechless. Again, a lot of nothing for an obvious payoff.
Back at home, Maya and Jimmy are glad to spend the night together arguing to each other (apparently it’s a regular habit of theirs, which is very on brand for Speechless). But Kenneth wants in on the fun and becomes judge, going overboard on the job until it’s his turn to have to argue against Maya. That brings out some real serious stuff, with Kenneth addressing that he wants to know where this (his job with the family) is all going.
This story works, especially as there’s always been a sense that Kenneth isn’t exactly part of the family. Sure there are more subtle ways to show this, but hey, this is much better than some resolution centered on Kenneth’s weekend job at a supermarket (let’s just forget that one). In the end Maya and Jimmy set off a bunch of fireworks for him and “propose” that he become part of the family. It’s cute. It’s in character. I’ll take it.
So Speechless goes in a bunch of directions with “P-r-Prom,” with some things working, some things failing, and other things just as they are. At least it’s not a supermarket episode.
Season 1, Episode 21 (S01E21)
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.
Follow Timothy on Twitter: @timothymalcolm
Keep up with all of Timothy’s reviews here.
Timothy Malcolm | Contributor