We’re pretty comfortable now with the DiMeo family. We know the beats. J.J. may have cerebral palsy, but he’s a crude and curious teen. Ray is the smart but anxiety-ridden middle child. Dylan doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks. Kenneth is bumbling but full of heart. Jimmy knows he’s not the important one, but he keeps things quietly humming. And Maya runs the show in every way.
So SPEECHLESS is like a lot of sitcoms. The characters are well drawn but still characters, rarely straying from what we expect them to be, certain to be a slight variation of their created profiles each week. To stray too much is to confuse and knock the planets off course. We’d all wonder what the hell happened and why the episode felt weird.
The planet reference is intentional, because “S-i-Sick D-a-Day” revolves around (heh) Ray’s science fair project (already his second science fair project in the series …) detailing the moons of Mars. Writers Elizabeth Beckwith and Seth Kurland pick up on this, too, neatly putting the family into the context of the Milky Way. But that’s later. Here, Ray is nervous about finishing his science project when Kenneth bumbles in with a cold. That sounds all the alarms since J.J. really shouldn’t get sick. Family on high alert. And Kenneth is immediately sent home.
That’s our conflict this week. The family is suddenly sent into survival mode with Kenneth out, so Dylan takes over J.J.’s board-reading duties. But a boy (the hunky upperclassman Chase) presents a challenge, throwing Dylan off guard as she – for the first time – feels the pangs of womanhood. This is handled smartly. Dylan goes gaga, sure, but she tries playing it off by chatting up Chase and his gal pal. It’s only afterward that she goes overboard, throwing on bad makeup and curling her hair. It’s a little too obvious, but it’s a cute visual.
We know what happens next. J.J. fires Dylan from reading his board (she’s embarrassing him), and Chase and his gal pal think Dylan’s weird, which she only finds out in secret. Turns out J.J. fired Dylan to protect her from the jerk Chase. It’s sweet, especially J.J.’s monologue as to how he’ll protect Dylan, but feels just a little too predictable.
The other storylines in “S-i-Sick D-a-Day” are more unpredictable and fresh. Kenneth’s cold was passed over to Maya, rendering her unable to run around and lead the family. She turns the duties over to Jimmy, which could go one of two ways. The most predictable: he could screw everything up, and we realize how important Maya is to the family.
But less predictable is Jimmy has a zen-like mastery over Maya’s chores (the shot of the kids munching on donuts over flighty flute music is pretty inspired). He doesn’t want to brag about this (to keep the order of things), so he tells the kids to lie to Maya and say he was a terrible Mr. Mom.
By now, we all know one of the best things about Speechless is that it doesn’t treat J.J. with kid gloves. He has cerebral palsy, sure, but he’s also fair game in the DiMeo household. And here’s where it shines: The kid can’t lie well. So Jimmy busts him over it (“blabbermouth,” mocking J.J.’s attempt at lying), and so naturally that it feels wonderfully familiar. Plus John Ross Bowie and Micah Fowler play off each other perfectly. Another reminder that while we have well drawn, relatively rigid character profiles here, Speechless can be really refreshing, and often a couple times each week.
J.J.’s blabbermouth makes Maya realize Jimmy can’t handle a real Mom day, which sends Jimmy into an existential wormhole. Again, great, because it’s one of the first times we’ve truly gone deep into Jimmy’s psyche.
But again, this turns out OK for him. Maya can’t handle a family in crisis, and Jimmy – through Kenneth – calms everything (complete with J.J. hilariously bobbing away to light jazz) back to normal.
So Jimmy is the glue of the DiMeo family. Or, as Beckwith and Kurland write, he’s the Moon, shedding light in the darkness. Which is appropriate because Ray’s original science project falls apart (he gets sick, too) and, in a last minute moment of desperation, the family makes the Moon out of a yoga ball.
The constant this week is Kenneth, who recovers quickly from his cold and becomes the family caretaker. He’s great in this role, delivering orange juice and showing off his nail filing and hand shaping skills (his aunt ran a beauty salon). It’s the best balance of quirky and kind Kenneth we’ve yet seen.
In fact, there’s a lot of terrific balance in “S-i-Sick D-a-Day.” We get a little bit of manic Maya, but a lot of a bedridden, emotive Maya. We also see J.J. knocked down a peg and still being a winner to his little sister. It’s also the best look at Jimmy the writers have given us, and arguably the deepest we’ve explored Dylan (only “R-a-y-c Ray-Cation” comes closest).
It’s another good one. And considering ratings have been strong (and increasing) since the show returned from winter break, it’s becoming more obvious that Speechless will have plenty more chances to explore their characters beyond whatever tropes the sitcom gods try to throw on them.
Season 1, Episode 13 (S01E13)
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