One of my best friends has a serious chronic illness, one that’s come with heart surgery and brain surgery and lots of close calls and potentially scary outcomes. (It’s not my intention to reduce her to any of those things, so I’ll point out that she is also brilliant and weird and fiercely loyal.) She writes and talks openly about her experiences, and it’s become a running joke to tally up the number of people who respond to her with comments like, “I could never do what you’re doing!” or “You are a beacon of hope!” or “You inspire me!” No one says any of those things with the intention of being unkind, but it’s weirdly dehumanizing regardless. She doesn’t want to be an inspiration; she wants to be a person.
Even though we haven’t delved too far into his inner life yet, I’m betting J.J. feels the same way. We’ve seen others play the capital-I inspiration card on him since the very first episode of Speechless, when he got a standing ovation from his classmates, followed by his teacher’s simpering pronouncement that J.J. was “taller sitting down than any of us are standing up.” It seems safe to assume that he’s been treated this way his whole life, so it makes total sense that what J.J. wants most is a day on the town — no parents, no siblings, just him and Kenneth. I know it’s beside the point, but this story line did make me wonder whether Kenneth was doing J.J. a favor or the DiMeo family was paying him out of pocket or something. Your public-school aide doesn’t get paid by the school district to take you out for hot dogs, right?
While they’re waiting in line for those fancy hot dogs (which Guy Fieri loves, and J.J. apparently thinks is a good thing), one of the owners of the food truck pulls them up to the front of the line. Kenneth wants to make sure that none of the other customers mind, and a couple at the front tells him they don’t — between the cute-kid-gentle-giant factor and the part where J.J.’s in a wheelchair, no one’s begrudging them hot dogs at their earliest convenience. “And,” one of the gentlemen adds, “I found myself asking: Who’s helping who?” Kenneth rolls his eyes at that bit, but then wonders aloud, “Might this extend to other non-hot-dog situations?”
It does. Soon, the boys are welcomed into Dodger Stadium without tickets, first in a fancy sky box, then in seats right next to the field. Soon enough, J.J.’s throwing out the first pitch and making the catcher give him both the ball and his glove. By the time Kenneth arranges for them to be on the kiss cam, J.J.’s grown pretty tired of it all, and he’s all the way over it by the time “they” go up to the announcer’s booth to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Kenneth’s only been an inspiration for a few hours, not the 18 years that J.J.’s put in, so the novelty is still strong for him. He announces that they’re heading to a Rolling Stones concert, even though he doesn’t even like the band.
But Kenneth’s chasing the special-treatment dragon so intensely that he pulls out of the stadium parking lot without the backpack that has J.J.’s voice board in it. J.J. is furious, as he should be, and once they’ve found the backpack and the board, he makes sure Kenneth knows it. Kenneth’s apology is sincere: “I’m not used to special treatment, and it went to my head.” I’m glad that J.J. drives home the point that this wasn’t just Kenneth forgetting his backpack, it was Kenneth taking away his voice. As strange as it may sound, I really loved getting to see Kenneth’s fallibility in such a clear way and with such real consequences. J.J. isn’t going to be some sort of cheerful, righteous poster boy for all people in wheelchairs, and I’m glad to see that Kenneth isn’t going to be perfect, either. Plus, he makes it up to J.J. by letting him drive the van!
Meanwhile, the rest of the family has a full day without J.J., something that none of them can ever remember happening. Maya cheerfully announces that they should use it to widen the bathroom door — the fact that J.J.’s constantly getting his wheelchair jammed has caused some unfortunate predicaments, one of which leads Maya to yell, “You’re the one who drinks water like we’re a two-bathroom family, Ray!” The rest of the family gets charmed into the bathroom project, as do two random construction workers lured in by Maya turning up at their job site to ask, “Might it be fun to loan me your saw?”
However, Dylan gives Maya a surprisingly mature speech about unhelpful guilt (she explains that Maya made her read a psychology textbook to become her free therapist), and somehow that gives Maya permission to let go and get paint-balling. Dylan and Ray realize they actually like one another, and they’re all pretty adept at paintball, so dominant that at one point Dylan throws her head back and screams, “This is the best day ever!” She stops for a second, looks around, and then says, “I mean … I miss J.J.?” Ultimately, Jimmy — who’s become my secret favorite character, if only for the warmth with which John Ross Bowie approaches him — sits down with Maya and tells her she’s going to have to start having fun, if only so Ray and Dylan know it’s okay, too. This leads to an ice-skating rink (Speechless, I’m learning, loves a good vacation shoot), where Maya doesn’t want to skate until Jimmy looks at her and says, “Seriously? We paid THREE DOLLARS for this.” She glides, she smiles, she falls, she swears, and it’s very fun to watch.
Speaking of Speechless …
- Three out of Speechless’s four episodes so far have been directed by Christine Gernon, a veteran director who’s worked in the TV business for almost two decades. Given how dismal things still are for women directors, that’s worth celebrating.
- “I lit a candle a few months ago.” Maya, trying to remember the last fun thing she did. Several minutes later, she announces, “I didn’t really light a candle.”
- A few of the options Dylan and Ray raise while discussing what activities they can do without J.J. along: parkour, wind-surfing, mountain biking, and touring a Frank Lloyd Wright house.
- “Congratulations, toaster, now YOU are our most valuable possession!” Jimmy, taking the accidental destruction of a laptop in stride.