ABC’s new sitcom Speechless is familiar family fare with a few surprises. The pilot introduces the DiMeo family, mom Maya, husband Jimmy and kids J. J., Ray, and Dylan. The plot follows Maya’s overzealous efforts to secure a better educational situation for J. J., the eldest son. The first episode centers on her efforts to uproot her family to move to a new school district that will provide a person designated to speak for her son since he cannot do so himself due to (surprise) cerebral palsy.
Speechless is funny without insulting our intelligence and touching without being saccharine.
Who’s in it?
Much of the first episode is spent getting to know just how abrasive Maya can be in the face of the injustices and indignities her son suffers in silence. The challenge for actress Minnie Driver and screenwriter Scott Silveri is to make Maya’s tirades believable and funny. They succeed on both counts in the pilot. Silveri, a veteran of Friends, mixes in equal parts Lois from Malcolm in the Middle and Frankie Heck from The Middle but tempers Maya with the supernatural parental wisdom and heart of Carol Brady. Driver, using her natural London-born accent, is perfect as a stubborn but loving mom on a mission.
Some recognizable comedy faces fill supporting roles. Dad Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) you know from The Big Bang Theory where he’s Dr. Kripke, the rhotacistic colleague and sometime nemesis to Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons).
Actor Cedric Yarbrough spent six seasons as Deputy Jones on Reno 911. Here he’s portraying the only black man in the DiMeo’s new school district and is paired with J. J., the only other “different” person in the frame.
Mason Cook is just 16 but already a veteran actor with recurring roles on The Goldbergs and The Middle. As Ray, the DiMeo’s middle child, he’s often a casualty of his mom’s determined efforts.
The Kid in the Wheelchair
I have to admit; I’m having a heck of a time writing this. I googled to find the most current acceptable terms and found nothing but confusion and conflicting accounts. Words that were acceptable as late as 2014 are taboo now. And, because watching Speechless put me on edge about using the wrong words, I have no idea how to talk about a kid with cerebral palsy without angering all the Maya DiMeo’s of the world.
That situation is where the first episode finds many of its biggest laughs. Nobody knows what to say and what they do say is either passively insulting or overly solicitous. At one point a character (the sublime Jonathan Slavin) literally screams with joy, “This is such an open-minded community!” Speechless isn’t just a reference to the character’s inability to speak; it’s also how many of us feel when trying to navigate the 21st-century minefield of political correctness.
The character J. J. is just another teenage boy. He’s worried about finding a way to talk to girls and spends a good bit of time picking on his little brother. He’s stuck in a wheelchair and uses a laser strapped to his head to communicate. Inside, though, in the words of Douglas Adams, he’s just this guy, you know?
And yes, actor Micah Fowler does have cerebral palsy and does use a wheelchair sometimes, but mostly he’s just another veteran actor (Blue’s Clues, Sesame Street, Labor Day) with an excellent sense of comic timing.
Will Anybody Watch?
Perhaps the biggest surprise about Speechless is that ABC is still producing situation comedies despite the fact that most Americans don’t watch them anymore.
Only one sitcom was among the top ten broadcast shows last year. CBS’s The Big Bang Theory clocked in just behind Sunday Night Football at number two on the list with 20.3 million viewers on average. The next comedy on the list is down at number 30. It’s another CBS show, Life in Pieces, which benefited from being scheduled right after TBBT but only drew half of its lead-in audience.
You have to drop down to number 36 to find ABC’s top comedy. Modern Family still pulls 9.8 million viewers, but there’s a steep drop-off from that point. It will be hard for Speechless to gain traction but ABC is giving the show its best shot. They’ve placed it on Wednesday between 80s-themed comedy The Goldbergs and Modern Family in a comedy block that also includes critical darling black-ish.
Speechless premieres September 21. Those who decide to tune in will find some laugh-out-loud moments and another solid, family-oriented comedy effort from ABC.