ABC’s Speechless is a new half-hour comedy that deserves to have people tuning in and talking about the show. One of the best cast new series of the fall 2016 primetime season, Speechless deftly avoids clichés and sentimentality in its focus on a quirky family that includes a teen with a disability. The family of five at the heart of the story, the DiMeos, each have their flaws and the pilot episode proves each family member will also have fully fleshed-out personalities and won’t just be cookie cutter stereotypes.
Maya, played by Minnie Driver, is a mile-a-minute talker whose switch quickly flips from loving mom to dangerous momma bear at the mere possibility of a potential injustice involving her family, especially when it could involve her son with a disability. John Ross Bowie plays the ever-tolerant dad, Jimmy DiMeo; Mason Cook is the frequently embarrassed son, Ray; and Kyla Kenedy from The Walking Dead is Dylan, the daughter who doesn’t always get the attention she deserves. Micah Fowler takes on the role of J.J., a high school student with cerebral palsy. J.J. is non-verbal and uses an electronic device to communicate. He also uses a wheelchair to get around. However, Speechless breaks away from most television and film representations of a teen with a disability so don’t expect J.J. to be an angel with a heart-of-gold. J.J. is sarcastic, has a good sense of humor, and is occasionally a pain in the butt. In other words, he’s a typical teen.
Speechless kicks off with the DiMeo family moving into a dilapidated house in a good neighborhood in order to enroll J.J. in a better school. Ray compares the family’s new home to a crack house and it’s not much of an exaggeration. The kids are used to constantly moving and changing schools in Maya’s continuing quest for the perfect school for J.J. The latest move came because this particular school stresses inclusivity and will supply a full-time aide to help J.J. out, reading out what he types and helping him navigate through his school days. Unfortunately, the aide assigned to J.J. has a squeaky voice which prompts J.J. to continuously make her say things as if she’s the fairy godmother from Cinderella. Fortunately, by the end of episode one a new male aide (Cedric Yarbrough) has been found who’s more in tune with J.J.’s personality.
The series approaches uncomfortable subjects head-on, calling out the oftentimes ridiculousness of being too politically correct. A prime example of PC that’s gone overboard in the pilot episode is the New Generations school’s decision to change its mascot to the sea slug just because it has both female and male genitalia. And J.J., played with real finesse by Micah Fowler who faces the challenges of cerebral palsy on a daily basis in real life, is more often than not the one who shuts down attempts to make him feel special simply because he’s living with a disability. On his first day in the new school, his classmates – without even getting to know him – launch a “J.J. for President” campaign. His response is to type out “Eat a bag of sh**” which his aide refuses to say out loud.
As played by Minnie Driver, Maya DiMeo is a fiery, fierce, and loving mother who often embarrasses her kids and alienates potential friends and supporters. John Ross Bowie, Mason Cook, and Kyla Kenedy are all terrific and it’ll be entertaining to see the them develop further outside their relationships within the family. Speechless has a lot to say but it does so with so much heart and humor that it’s practically irresistible. Smartly written, well-acted, and with a premise that hasn’t been done to death, Speechless is one of the most entertaining new comedies of the fall 2016 season.
Speechless premieres on ABC on September 21, 2016.