The one bit of Speechless that’s already wearing a bit thin is its extensive “we’re so busy with J.J. that we don’t have time for the little things, and here’s tons of visual evidence to that effect!” schtick. We already understand that the DiMeo family’s life is complicated! Last week’s episode established that in a nice, relatively subtle way, and even if it hadn’t, viewers are smart enough to infer the challenges they face.
Besides, I have a hard time believing that with everything Maya and Jimmy have done to give J.J. the best life possible, they’d feel comfortable letting him live in a house that he cannot navigate. A little mess and chaos is understandable. But having a home where the floors aren’t clear for easy wheelchair use isn’t any different from having a high-school bonfire on a sandy beach.
That’s right, it’s homecoming week on Speechless, and everyone’s fired up for the big bonfire! (I’ve always wondered whether this is an actual Californian tradition, or just a sitcom trope.) J.J.’s been accepted by a gang of popular kids — it’s hard to tell who’s more excited about this, him or Kenneth — all of whom fall somewhere on the spectrum of sheepish to angry when they realize he won’t be able to do the requisite rock-climbing and crevasse-shimmying needed to get to the beach. To hide his disappointment, J.J. makes a few “your mom” jokes, then tries to shrug it all off as best he can.
Then, of course, his mom gets involved, and speaks to the principal to have the bonfire canceled. “Back at your old special ed schools, I got things cancelled all the time!” Maya crows. “All the moms did! We took turns! Blind mom cancelled movie night, deaf mom cancelled jazz band, there were never any events, and everyone was happy.” The cancelled bonfire gets rebranded into a new, improved, “inclusive” version that’s epically uncool. There’s a fake fire. There are hot dogs cooking in a slow cooker. There’s the worst badminton court ever. It’s all so sad and awful that the principal calls an emergency emotional rap session.
That session only lasts a couple of minutes, but it’s surprisingly complex and emotional, with students saying (politely and apologetically) that they don’t think it’s fair that the bonfire was canceled just to accommodate one student. Then one of J.J.’s friends points out that if it were anyone other than J.J. who’d gotten the event canceled, they’d be mad at that person. “Isn’t it demeaning to J.J. to not blame him?” he asks. “Holy crap, that’s evolved,” one of the teachers responds. I’m not sure to what extent that logic tracks, but it’s refreshingly nuanced, even if it’s sort of stomach-churning to see one of J.J.’s classmates tell him, “For someone who doesn’t walk, you sure do trample on our rights.”
Fortunately, with Maya’s help, J.J.’s new friends don’t stay angry for long. She ties J.J. to the goalposts on the football field, making it look like a prank pulled off by the football team’s homecoming rivals. When the team comes to free him, they’re so incensed that they forgive him and spend the entire homecoming game completely brutalizing the opposing team (and a solid chunk of that team’s sideline staff) in the name of revenge. It’s a pretty dark way for a mother to win back her son’s pals, but that’s what makes it work so well. I’m really interested to see how Speechless carves out an identity beyond “heart-warming family comedy,” so a willingness to get a little dark in moments like these will go a long way.
While I don’t completely understand Jimmy’s fondness for bringing home garbage (is it a coping mechanism, or just a weird quirk?), it brings us a really nice moment between him and Ray. Ray’s mortified by the family tradition of repurposing trash as furniture, including the past use of an old aquarium as Dylan’s crib. In fact, half of his family’s behavior leads him to either embarrassment, panic attacks, or blood pressure spikes, so much so that he’s had to give up pickles. And so when Ray and Jimmy go on one last trash run and accidentally steal the belongings of a girl on her way to college, Ray can’t wrap his head around the idea that Jimmy isn’t mortified. “Other people’s opinions are nothing,” Jimmy explains. “You know what’s NOT nothing is a doctor who tells you there’s something wrong with your kid … It’s like, what else you got? … We’re not normal. We’re better. We’re bulletproof.” This bolsters Ray enough to decide to return the stolen goods himself — only to have his crush and half the girls from his grade open the door when he knocks. Poor dude.
Meanwhile, Dylan spirals into an existential crisis courtesy of an off-the-cuff remark from Kenneth, who suggests that she enjoys running because of J.J.’s disability. She’s running for the both of them. Gobsmacked, Dylan sits on the curb and asks, “Is that why I run? I thought I liked it.” The bit works nicely in the moment and also pays off later, when the whole family watches the homecoming game together. One of J.J.’s friends runs past during the game, and says, “This one’s for you, J.J.!” Dylan wonders, “Does everyone who plays a sport do it for J.J.?”
Speaking of Speechless …
- “This beard? Total cry for help, thanks for noticing.” A not-at-all-troubling statement for a track coach to make to teenage girls.
- At one point, Dylan asks whether “literally” means “a lot,” and she’s assured that it does. And so dies the English language.
- Whoever found Kenneth’s short-sleeved, button-up shirts is the unsung hero of Speechless. They’re all hilariously bad and on point.
- In accordance with J.J.’s new popularity, Maya makes him a new language board with cool terms like Kylie Jenner, Kanye, and “Hells yeah, bitch!” (The latter doubles as “I need to use the bathroom.”)
- Maya: “That was the worst alternative bonfire I have ever been to.”
Kenneth: “You’ve been to other alternative bonfires?”
Maya: “Anything that isn’t a bonfire is an alternative to a bonfire, Kenneth.”