It’s somewhat of a shame that SPEECHLESS took a two-week break. For the first time, maybe all season, the series was gaining some steam with a serious thread.
The end of the April 5 episode “C-h-Cheater” found J.J. tracking down Kenneth for a chat. He had seen his family discuss his future, one in which he wouldn’t be very independent. And for this show, that was pretty crucial.
See, Speechless has earned praise for treating disability fairly and openly, and rightly so. Played by an actor with cerebral palsy, J.J. is a good character in that he’s a complicated teenager whose disability adds a layer but never gets in the way of things. There’s no sugary sweetness about his disability. Sometimes it’s twisted humorously. And always it’s given the same respect as Ray’s desire to be country club chic, or Dylan’s mad fixation with being a winner.
But Speechless also left it behind. And since it’s the thing that separates Speechless from every other network comedy, Speechless started to feel like every other network comedy. Secondary and tertiary characters were introduced and faded pretty fast. Plots were spread thin. Jokes were lame.
Well, now, here we are. “R-u-n-Runaway” doubles down on J.J.’s anger, his wish to be treated independently and – the quiet, festering thread of the season – Maya’s never-ceasing clutch on J.J. And in “R-u-n-Runaway,” it doesn’t exactly end well (and that’s a good thing).
The plot is simple. J.J. wants to be treated like a person capable of making his own decisions, but when Maya finds out he’s trying to run away, she decides to take over the runaway. In effect, she’s still making the decisions.
But J.J. gets to at least say where they’re going, so they hit the casino (where J.J. performs admirably) before he suggests a strip club. That ends the charade, but J.J. brings down the hammer and tells Maya to leave him be.
Instead of completely leaving him be, Maya looks for inspiration and finds it in another man with cerebral palsy (Zach Anner), who drives his own van and has a cute girlfriend. It doesn’t start well for Maya (she’s tased in a nice bit of acting by Minnie Driver) and it doesn’t end well: J.J.’s new friend informs him that he needs to “make space for himself.” Maya thinks she delivered J.J. instant happiness; in reality, she only complicated matters more and is showing that, yeah, J.J. needs (and deserves) his space.
This is a great development for Speechless, which is showing it isn’t afraid to cast shadows over its relatively peppy pace. It’s also a ready-made plot twist for the end of the season, but instead of shoehorning it in with two episodes to play, we’re getting this a little bit earlier in the run. All good news. The writers are doing the actors well here.
Besides Ms. Driver getting tased, there’s enough laughter to go around this week. For one, there’s a nice montage of Kenneth attempting to make his apartment handicap accessible for J.J., sold with all his might by Cedric Yarbrough.
But, primarily, Dylan whoops it up in a number of ways, going on a vulgarity rant (The Goldbergs has perfected sporadic use of vulgarity on network TV, but Speechless is giving it a run for its money) and matching up toe-to-toe with Kenneth in trash talk.
When she finds out J.J.’s help used to be a flamboyant college basketball star (the picture and Fatboy Slim references are a nice touch), she sees a role model in Kenneth. In trying to extract the old baller out of him, she drags him onto the court (a decent montage of blocked shots) and into his old sports car.
It’s a well-worn plot but highly entertaining thanks to Yarbrough and Kyla Kenedy’s contortions. It’s a nice pairing, and we’re now at a point where just about anything Kenedy does ends in hilarity. She’s a big win for this series.
The third story has Ray and Dylan plotting to extort Jimmy in free stuff, since he can’t deal with serious talks. This suffers a little from weak character sketching (Jimmy doesn’t come off very strong) and, while the payoff (Ray getting a robe and saying “robe talk”) is OK and perfectly in step, it feels like a waste of Jimmy and Ray.
But in the service of a much more serious and well-written lead story, we’ll take corny and wasteful. Speechless is closing its first season with heft, proving it’s more than a garden-variety sitcom, more than a sitcom with an interesting premise. This is a series with serious things to say about individualism, freedom and respect. It’s great to see more of that on network TV.
Season 1, Episode 20 (S01E20)
Speechless airs Wednesday 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