SPEECHLESS hasn’t been one to just throw out positive messages for the heck of it. That’s been one of the more refreshing things about the show. J.J. may have cerebral palsy, and actor Micah Fowler may have cerebral palsy, but the show hasn’t dipped into schmaltz for the sake of opening eyes. Instead, it’s opened eyes by telling a relatively accurate tale of life with a disability.
In this week’s “S-l-Sled H-o-Hockey,” it’s a little more on the nose. Luckily the message is well written, coated in winking pop culture references with a dash of sarcasm. Less luckily, “S-l-Sled H-o-Hockey” never feels completely comfortable delivering the message. It’s the rare character misstep for a show that has understood its characters very well thus far.
See, we’ve been conditioned to understand that Maya is the overprotective parent in the DiMeo family, while Jimmy is more prone to let things play out. He hasn’t shown a lick of concern for J.J.’s welfare – and not that he doesn’t care, but more because he seems to be confident that J.J. can handle things (and that other people are the problem). Only this week in “S-l-Sled H-o-Hockey,” Jimmy is completely wracked over J.J.’s desire to play sled hockey, in which disabled folks head out on the ice, get physical and try to score goals.
It comes about because J.J. is tired of being patronized. It’s a great storyline with real-world background: Because he’s disabled, J.J. gets star treatment during flag football. No one dares touch him; instead, everyone pulls out a phone, probably to hopefully be the YouTube uploader whose heartwarming J.J. video goes viral.
It’s a good start and ripped right from the life of a disabled person. J.J. wants to be treated as an equal, so when he spots people in wheelchairs playing sled hockey, he feels he’s found his calling.
Jimmy doesn’t approve, going so far as to make J.J. the sled hockey water boy. This is an obvious Maya storyline, and it’s likely the writers know it, too, since Jimmy asks Maya why she isn’t on the same page. Maya’s response is she’s in “Do not exclude my son; he can do anything” mode, which sounds like the writers offering us a way out of the corner they painted last.
It ends with Jimmy accepting that J.J. can do anything, and we get really good reminders of why the show is important. Then, after J.J. gets hit and loses a tooth, dismaying him to the point of quitting, Jimmy stands up and reenacts the sports movie cliche of delivering a fiery, supportive speech to turn J.J. around. All of that is good, and laced with just enough sarcasm to fit with the show’s tone. But it’s still a stretch to make Jimmy do all the legwork.
So what’s Maya doing? Walking in on Kenneth in the shower.
Yup, we get that old cliche in “S-l-Sled H-o-Hockey,” which actually plays out decently. Maya screams, takes a peek, screams once more and that’s that, smash cut to the two in the living room, in robes, talking about what just happened.
But from that is Maya’s revelation that Kenneth has been relaxing a little too much with the DiMeos. Maybe he should get that CPR certification? So the two of them go to a CPR class (which for some reason lasts over two days?) and, while there, Kenneth is recruited by a nice couple seeking an aid for their son. Maya becomes protective (see?), deciding to become nice to keep Kenneth with her.
So, while this storyline was needed (to address Maya and Kenneth’s relationship), all the obvious beats are here. Maya butters Kenneth up with snacks and small talk. Sadly, Kenneth goes right along with it (until he’s told he’s in the middle of a tug-of-war), which doesn’t quite match up with his character. Yes, Kenneth can be a little absent, but he’s not that much of a doofus to not see how Maya is putting him on.
All’s well that end’s well here, too, with the two acknowledging differences in viewpoint, and Maya bending a little to make Kenneth feel more at home.
One person not feeling at home anymore is Ray, who continues to be the most fascinating character in Speechless. Apparently his “Raycation” last week wasn’t enough, because he’s still seeking “a place for me.” He finds it in a hidden alcove behind his bedroom, but it’s snuffed out by Dylan. And here we get the best little story of “S-l-Sled H-o-Hockey,” if only because Mason Cook and Kyla Kenedy have great chemistry.
Plus there are some nice beats and jokes. Dylan starts the episode taking up the saxophone (because it’s loud). Later, she’s playing trumpet. Also, she claims she was “decapitated” once. Ray reads a book on “Mark Twain” for school, then opens up “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” for pleasure. He sits in his quiet place eating a grocery store vegetable platter and watching TED Talks. Dylan sits there with pizza, placing it on the beanbag chair without a plate or napkin.
Ray seems to think he’s the one who needs quiet time, but he doesn’t realize everyone does (“he just complains about it the most”), especially Dylan, who has to put up with two boys in the bedroom. So Ray compromises by splitting alcove time with Dylan. Again, all’s well that ends well, but this time it’s completely within the characters.
As I’ve said before, Speechless is at its best when it’s staying within its characters. Only one storyline does that perfectly in “S-l-Sled H-o-Hockey.” The others are just mixed bags.
Season 1, Episode 9 (S01E09)
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.
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Timothy Malcolm | Contributor