After a strong premiere, Speechless picks up right where it left off. Kenneth is about to start as J.J.’s full-time, one-to-one aide. Maya still isn’t happy about it, and initially casts doubt on his qualifications. (“He mows grass for a living! This is a man whose chief job competition is goats!”) But over the course of the episode, she realizes that none of her objections have to do with Kenneth himself. She’s literally written the book on J.J., having spent his entire lifetime creating a massive, three-ring binder full of the essential details of his life and care. J.J. needs someone, but he doesn’t always need her.
That realization is understandably tough for Maya to swallow, and Minnie Driver’s ability to balance that tender emotional reality with acerbic wit is really compelling. For as frequently as “It’s hard to see my kids grow up!” gets trotted out as a sitcom trope, this story doesn’t feel stale at all, and that’s not just due to the fact that the kid in question happens to have special needs.
Soon enough, Maya comes around to Kenneth a teensy bit, mostly because the man is a damn delight. He has an easy rapport with J.J., firing away with questions about who handles bathroom stuff and whether J.J.’s junk works and if he can count cards like Rainman. He also asks if J.J.’s interested in sports or music, and after shaking his head no, the kid starts pointing his laser pointer at girls’ butts. It’s gross, but then again, so are teenage boys! After a lost-and-found-based fashion show and some overenthusiastic praise for J.J.’s sole chest hair, he’s named the manager of the cheerleading squad (“I don’t think the fact that that’s not a thing is any reason to say no!”), which basically just means that teen girls gyrate near him in the name of inclusivity. Wisely, Kenneth stands a respectful distance away and averts his eyes.
Maya isn’t totally sold until the very end of the episode, when she overhears Kenneth helping J.J. use the restroom. It’s in no way an explicit scene, but I nevertheless appreciate that Speechless addresses the issue so early in its run; it’s important to not gloss over or erase the unpleasant or inconvenient aspects of J.J.’s needs. That’s why it was especially gratifying to hear Kenneth talk about helping J.J. use the restroom frankly but compassionately, and to hear him tell J.J. he doesn’t have to be embarrassed to ask. We don’t know much about Kenneth yet, aside from his apparent kindness, his desire to take the job because it was “a challenge and a way to help somebody,” and his elation at finding a pair of Crocs in his size at the lost and found. I’m looking forward to getting to know him better.
Meanwhile, Dylan spends the episode learning the difference between jerks and idiots, and grasping the reality that she comes from a family full of the latter. Jimmy explains that the DiMeos have a complicated life, and that things will inevitably fall through the cracks. He tells Dylan that she shouldn’t bother bringing in the recycling bins — that sort of thing just makes the neighbors assume the DiMeos are the sort of people who landscape and plan ahead and don’t have private ambulance companies race to their house to see which ones are fastest. But Dylan gets confused, and uses her father’s advice as justification to prank their neighbors. “That’s a jerk move,” Jimmy explains. “We’re not jerks. We’re idiots … Idiots are going to mess up, but what are you going to do? Get angry? They’re idiots.”
This “idiots” story line has the distinction of featuring both a solid running gag and a strong piece of character development for Jimmy. On top of that, it highlights one of my favorite aspects of Speechless so far: These characters aren’t needlessly mean to one another. Yes, Maya can be a little bit of a nightmare, but she does what she does to make J.J.’s life better, not for sport or for her own pleasure. Speechless isn’t a show about jerks, and that’s tremendously refreshing, given that so much contemporary comedy hinges on the idea that mean equals funny.
Meanwhile, Ray’s still obsessing over Jillian. He goes so far as to plot an exhaustive map of the school, her schedule, and her boyfriend Zane’s schedule in order to find a window in which to talk with her. (Jimmy wisely advises him to never, ever show the map to anyone.) But after J.J. misses a physical-therapy appointment, and Maya makes Ray see the therapist since the session’s already paid for, he develops a complex about his gait, ruining his chance to walk Jillian to class later. “It’s fine for today,” the therapist tells him, “But is this your long-term walking plan?”
Let’s be clear: This is a lot of action for a half-hour sitcom. It would be impressive had Speechless simply managed to get that much story across in a reasonably coherent way. To do so with humor and compassion and a unique point of view is a true accomplishment. I’m really, really excited to see where Speechless takes us next.
Speaking of …
- J.J. and Maya’s standing date to watch The Bachelor together is very sweet … and a savvy bit of ABC network synergy. Group date to the Speechless set next season?!
- “It’s a contract! I’m leasing a car! Bad idea. I’m too young.” —Ray, lying badly when Jillian discovers him with his stalker map in his hand.
- The high-school principal is already my favorite side character. “I have dirt on the superintendent — he’s my brother, but screw it!” is a particularly perfect line.
- I cringed pretty hard at Ray’s idea of a breezy, romantic topic for small talk with Jillian, but it turns out those worms in New Zealand are actually pretty gorgeous.