ABC has added yet another series to its roster of formulaic family sitcoms, but this one’s a little different. “Speechless” centers on the DiMeo clan –– a family with a special-needs child named J.J. (Micah Fowler, “Labor Day”). J.J., who has cerebral palsy (as does the talented young actor who portrays him), is quickly revealed to be an audacious teen in his own right, not unlike his two siblings Ray (Mason Cook, “The Goldbergs”) and Dylan (Kyla Kenedy, “The Walking Dead”).
In the series premiere, the three teens are forced to change schools yet again as their mother, Maya DiMeo (Minnie Driver, “About a Boy”), relentlessly searches for a school that will accommodate J.J. Maya fights the commonly futile struggle against a system that fails to provide the necessary resources to students like J.J. The latest pretext in their series of moves is a school that provides a “voice” for J.J., a cloyingly chipper school staff member who is constantly at J.J.’s side to help him communicate with those around him. Though the “voice” is a win for Maya, she soon finds another cause for protest: the school’s handicap ramp is the same ramp used to load and unload trash. In a hilariously piercing comment, Maya asks the school principal what kind of disabilities the trash being carried out has, pointing out the neglectful injustice in her son being required to use such a ramp.
Driver executes her role as the unfettered advocate for her son’s rights with such moxie that it’s impossible not to find her ferocity charming. Her indignation at every obstacle faced by her son is heartwarming, yet the show establishes that her character is as strong as she is endearing. The town’s police seem to agree –– when she speeds past a parked cop car no less than two times, a seasoned officer stops his partner from pursuing her, simply shaking his head and saying, “Not her. Life’s too short.”
Though the title would have you believe otherwise, “Speechless” is actually full of sharp, unfiltered dialogue wielded primarily by the charming-as-ever Driver. The family’s unconventional, outspoken matriarch adds a refreshing dose of brazen quirkiness to the stale family dynamic seen in most of the network’s sitcoms. That isn’t to say that everyone is easily persuaded by Maya’s persistent charm. J.J.’s younger brother Ray questions whether his parents’ decision to move into a shabby home along the bustling highway is a necessary change or just another rash solution to the pervasive issue of J.J.’s schooling.
John Ross Bowie (“The Big Bang Theory”) plays Jimmy DiMeo, Maya’s equally eccentric, yet complacent parenting partner. Without being overshadowed by Maya, Jimmy complements her character with a subtle quirkiness and grounding acceptance. He and Ray also share a bond that deepens the audience’s relationship with the DiMeo family through yet another lens into what feels like an authentic family dynamic. Though Ray’s maturity and determination to be heard in his parents’ decision-making process borders on absurd at times, as do Maya and Jimmy’s antics, these qualities feel like exaggerated personifications of their real-life counterparts.
While the resonance of the series is partly due to creator Scott Silveri’s (known for “Friends”) own experiences growing up with an older brother with cerebral palsy, it has all the components of a great comedy. Poignant moments are countered with warm humor, making the plot and its characters feel familiar. The show provides insight into what it’s like to live with a disability without overtly politicizing the subject matter. Simply, in a time where network television has fallen under criticism for failing to accurately portray diversity on screen, “Speechless” has successfully found its voice through an identity that has rarely, if ever, been represented in the media in an accurate and relatable manner.
Though “Speechless” has the feel of a network TV sitcom, it tackles a reality far beyond the grasp of most network shows currently on air with refreshing heart and humor. The new show is more than a deftly executed series with a stellar cast, it’s a win for both ABC and for network television comedies.