I had written off the first half of “R-o-Road T-r-Trip.”
The stakes were low. Really low. And characters were written as caricatures.
Moreover, and worse, there was a trend unfolding. SPEECHLESS was starting to feel like any other sitcom, poorly slopped together with cartoonish behaviors, and “R-o-Road T-r-Trip” felt a lot like an episode meant to be tucked into the middle of the season, hidden from plain sight and not worth its true placement at the beginning of the season’s second act.
Then we came back from commercial.
Speechless has abundant heart. We’ve seen it so much already, and not just through title character J.J. In fact, it’s Ray who’s been the heart of the series. You could say – without dipping too far into cliche here – that his ongoing battle of trying to fit in slowly is the real “speechless” alluded to in the series title. And when Ray gains a little ground, the heart bursts through.
So this week, in which Ray gets some comeuppance on his family, then succumbs to appendicitis, has plenty of heart. And that’s what ultimately gives “R-o-Road T-r-Trip” a passing grade.
It’s not all great, though.
Look, the first half of “R-o-Road T-r-Trip” stumbles without direction. The DiMeos get excited about a January road trip (it’s the most inexpensive trip-taking time of the year!), but their road trips are spontaneous. Ray doesn’t like this, and for once, he wants his own planned, organized trip.
But the stakes are low here. Why do we care that Ray can’t be spontaneous? Maya doesn’t seem particularly sad that Ray doesn’t agree with the rest of the family. Meanwhile J.J. is cracking jokes at Ray’s expense while Dylan is toying with her older brother. Nothing new. And nothing too fun.
The family ends up at a craft fair. Jimmy and J.J. realize they can sell everyday goods from the back of their van. Dylan sees a Big-style fortune teller and gets spooked. And Ray gets excited about a guy selling comic books.
Then the family stops at a roadside stand for cold corn dogs and strawberries. They follow an alpaca to an inn. This is what happens. It isn’t very exciting.
Then we hit the act break and the episode changes. Ray, in fact, plotted the whole random vacation to turn in his favor (the inn they end up at is near an observatory). Give Mason Cook credit for his shifting performance, and give writers Dan Holden and Miriam Datskovsky credit for a clever premise, giving Ray the leg up on his family for a change.
But nothing prepares us for the third act, in which Ray suddenly comes down with appendicitis.
Maybe it’s a convenient wrench in the story, but it allows the story to come together quite well. Suddenly J.J. isn’t cracking jokes but giving Ray a word of wisdom. And Dylan is even showing sympathy, not just trashing Ray because she can. Finally, we get the most motherly moments from Maya yet, with her remembering everything Ray wanted out of vacation and giving to him, but in the most DiMeo-appropriate ways.
The episode’s B-story mirrors the A-story, at least in pace. For the first half of “R-o-Road T-r-Trip,” Kenneth is reduced to a cartoon, trying to stand in for J.J. at school but coming up lame. It makes poor use out of a once-strong character, someone improving himself by the week.
Then the act break. Suddenly we get a budding friendship (or are we going to ship this one …?) between Kenneth and the forgotten Dr. Miller. Only he leaves her hanging high and dry when Maya asks him to help after Ray is hospitalized. Zoom out, and Kenneth was looking for a home, though he had one all along.
There’s more to Speechless, even if the first act of the 11th episode of its first season doesn’t quite show that. I guess I have to give it a little more time before I write it off.
Season 1, Episode 11 (S01E11)
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.
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Timothy Malcolm | Contributor