Let’s be clear: Speechless is groundbreaking television. To my knowledge, it’s the first-ever network television show that features a main character who is both in a wheelchair and played by someone in a wheelchair. By casting Micah Fowler to play JJ DiMeo, the series sets an important, undeniable precedent, sending the clear message that there’s no need to cast non-disabled actors for similar roles. Not only will people with disabilities see themselves represented on TV, the casting directors who claim there are “just no actors in wheelchairs out there” will have to put up or shut up. By that measure alone, Speechless is a huge success. And it’s made even better by the fact that JJ isn’t a beacon of hope or a window into unknowable suffering or a burden on his parents. He’s just a 16-year-old kid.
Of course, being an important show and a successful sitcom are two very different standards. Fortunately, Speechless seems well on its way to accomplishing the latter, too. The series premiere does an excellent job of setting up each character’s individual personality. Jimmy DiMeo (John Ross Bowie) is a compassionate, grounding father and already a strong contender for a Special Emmy Award for Achievement in Wry Asides. Dylan (Kyla Kenedy), the DiMeo’s youngest daughter, is a budding track star who inherited her mother’s ability for exquisite fits of rage (road and otherwise). JJ has a sly sense of humor, a fondness for the phrase “eat a bag of dicks,” and almost no patience for anyone trying to fit him into a “you poor thing!” narrative. Ray (Mason Cook), the middle child, is entering a time of his life where he’s finally willing to push for his own needs and likes and desires (read astronomy, girls), rather than taking a backseat to JJ’s needs. It’s clear Ray is the character most closely tied to Speechless’s creator, Scott Silveri, who grew up in a home with a nonverbal brother. In an interview with the New York Times, Silveri said that he wanted Speechless to be a look at the “specific kind of weirdos” that comprise a family like the DiMeos. It’s well on its way.
And then there’s Maya, played by Minnie Driver. Driver really shines throughout the pilot, especially when she balances Maya’s fierce love for her family and her capacity for incandescent anger with a charming blend of humor and compassion. I’d love it if this becomes a massive success for Driver, and that’s not just my love for the short-lived About a Boy talking. She’s earned it. And it’s also really refreshing to see Driver, who is 46, playing the mother of teens.
It’s Maya’s insistence on finding a one-to-one classroom aid for JJ that leads the DiMeos to move to the worst house in the best school district, which offers a planetarium, a $2 million track, and a bunch of woefully misguided, but kind educators. (On his first day, JJ is appointed class president in a weird pity vote.) I’m already excited to see Maya opposite Cedric Yarbough’s Kenneth, the janitor whom JJ recruits after the school-assigned aide turns out to be a bit of a fiasco. I loved the way the episode drove home the fact that JJ’s first aide was more than just a bad personality fit — she point-blank refused to speak for him. Thankfully, Kenneth won’t have the same reluctance. I laughed out loud when he bestowed the nickname “Blind Side” on Maya.
However, the care with which Speechless establishes its characters makes for a bit of a slow start. I’ve often joked that a TV pilot can be considered successful if you leave knowing the main characters’ names, and Speechless easily clears that bar. At the same time, I saw the promotional commercial for Speechless dozens and dozens of times over the summer — ABC ran it constantly, and it played in movie theaters, too. It was a great commercial! But its effectiveness weighed against my enjoyment of the pilot. Watching the pilot, I felt like I already knew the DiMeo family … and I’d heard some of their best jokes. Fortunately, that’s not an indicator of Speechless’s chances of success, even if it did have a semi-significant bearing on my enjoyment of this particular episode. This has great potential to be a sweet, funny show, and one that fits perfectly with the rest of ABC’s Wednesday night lineup, which I sometimes refer to as “shows for moms and dads.” All in all, I look forward to hearing more of what Speechless has to say.
- “Not her. Life’s too short.” A traffic cop, to his partner, about the folly of trying to pull Maya over for speeding. I love how pervasive Maya’s reputation is, and I really love how little she cared.
- The most perfectly executed detail of the entire episode is the sweater vest that JJ’s first (and eventually fired) aide wears.
- Jimmy, to JJ and Dylan: “All right. One of you should run with me and stop mom, one of you should stay with the van. Hmm, what might be a good division of labor?”
- I’m guessing that Speechless will return to the theme of “well-intentioned but ultimately pretty piss-poor attempts at inclusion” over and over again, and I like how that idea was set up in the first episode: The high-school mascot has male and female genitalia (Go Sea Slugs!), but there’s no proper ramp in place for JJ’s wheelchair.
- “He can’t stand! The ovation is insensitive!!”
- Thank God nobody told Minnie Driver to do an American accent.