Out of the four new network family sitcoms that aired this fall (“Speechless,” “American Housewife,” “Man with a Plan,” and “Kevin Can Wait”) only one managed to rise above mediocrity at best and downright God-awful at worst. “Speechless’” very easily steals the spotlight and is surprisingly very good for a genre that often struggles. The show is charming, endearing, original, honest, funny and realistic, all with the added accolade of helping to battle ableism in both Hollywood and society as a whole. It is the fierce story of the close-knit DiMeo family and the lengths they go to in order to help support a son with cerebral palsy, who is both wheelchair-bound and non-verbal, communicating solely through a speech board and laser. The show begins with them moving into a new, wealthy, white neighborhood that allows their disabled son, JJ, to go to a school that will accommodate for his needs. They find themselves in a fixer-upper home that is literally falling apart and a community that is almost a little too obsessed with trying to be inclusive.
There are three main adult characters in the show: JJ’s mother, father, and caretaker. The mother, Maya DiMeo, is played quite brilliantly by Minnie Driver, exploding onto the screen as a bombastic, pushy, loud, bold, over-protective and controlling mother who is somehow still lovable. She does not hesitate to deliver scathing lectures to anyone who crosses her or her family and is unapologetically difficult and demanding. Ultimately, she would stop at nothing for her children – JJ in particular – making even her most obnoxious moments endearing.
The father, Jimmy DiMeo, is played by John Ross Bowie, previously known for his role as Kripke on “The Big Bang Theory.” Without the hindrance of a speech impediment that made his character Kripke little more than the butt of lazy ableist jokes, “Speechless” allows his comedic talent to truly shine in a show that actually champions the disabled community rather than simply make fun of them. Jimmy is, in complete contrast to his wife, excessively laid back to an almost calculated degree. He takes no issue with letting his strong-willed wife take the driver’s seat (often literally) while he serves as the calming force to balance out his wife’s rough edges and help her relax when she starts getting too out of control.
Jimmy is often the comic relief of the group and adds such a refreshing ease to every scene he’s in, reminding us to not take the show too seriously as he simultaneously reminds his family the same of their own complex lives. While Maya often focuses much of her energy on JJ, Jimmy takes the time to bond with each of his two other children, while teaching them what he deems to be important life lessons. He explains to his son the merits of being “lazy” and to his daughter the importance of not crossing the line between being an “idiot” and a “jerk,” insisting that they are a family of idiots, not jerks. While his lessons often seem like odd and questionable parenting decisions, he’s somehow so earnest and charming that anything he says sounds justified and even appealing. Both Jimmy and Maya are definitely not your conventional parents, but they have a wonderful, honest, loving bond and trust with each of their children that is really beautiful.
Lastly, there is Kenneth, played by Cedric Yarbrough. He is hired to be the son’s interpreter and care-taker after JJ deems him “cool” enough to serve as his voice in the world. Being one of the only African Americans in the neighborhood, Kenneth can relate to being an outsider and he and JJ quickly form a deep understanding and bond, making for an unlikely and comical pair.
One of the true reasons this show manages to excel, however, is due to its success in an area where most family sitcoms really struggle–the children. This show does not focus solely on the adults, nor does it create character tropes for the children that are either irritating or cliche. The children are not an afterthought or a plot device, but just as integral to the fabric of the show as the adults. Micah Fowler provides a stellar performance as JJ, the son with Cerebral Palsy and is truly fantastic. He is funny, loveable, and manages to convey so much emotion without ever saying a word. Despite being wheelchair-bound and, well, speechless, he is still very much your typical teenage boy, interested in girls, partying, drinking, being cool and breaking the rules (a win for disabled people everywhere.)
Ray, played by Mason Cook, is the responsible child who often serves as the voice of reason in his otherwise atypical family. He is a science enthusiast, part of the astronomy club, and not so smooth with the ladies. The daughter, Dylan, played by Kyla Kenedy, is a sporty track star and a tough cookie, just like her mother. She takes great joy in torturing her brother and, like a chip off the old block, has no problem yelling at strangers for their various transgressions. Each child is funny, realistic and entertaining in their own way. They all share a special, close and honest bond with their parents and with each other, which is a more fun and refreshing alternative to watch than the usual family drama. While they still have much room to grow as actors, they are talented enough to hold their own and never become even remotely annoying. They are not melodramatic and do not over-act, as many child actors often do to cringe-worthy results.
Furthermore, the stories told are an accurate portrayal of how a disability can affect one’s life and the lives of loved ones. Spearheaded by creator Scott Silveri (of “Friends”), who himself grew up in a family with a special needs child, the show maintains a unique authenticity in spirit and process by also starring actor Micah Fowler, who actually has cerebral palsy, and involving writers who have shared in similar experiences. It never, however, becomes preachy or self-pitying. Instead it envokes empathy, understanding and empowerment. It is also refreshing in its realism–finally, a sitcom about a family that isn’t wealthy or privileged. While they may live in an affluent community, they themselves drive an old, ugly, beat up van and live in a home that is a broken down disaster. I have never been so glad to see such horrible living quarters portrayed on TV.
Overall, “Speechless” is a wonderful new addition to the family sitcom genre, battling stereotypes and stigma in the disabled community and easily climbing to the top of the list of this year’s new comedies. The casting is spot on, the characters are all enjoyable to watch, and the stories are entertaining, heartfelt and true to real life experiences. While most family comedies fail to keep my attention for very long, this is one that may just break the mold. It laid a solid foundation; now we’ll see where it goes from here and if it can maintain the momentum it needs to make it far.
This show wins points for utilizing it's children better than many family comedies, showing a different type of family than we're used to seeing on TV, and being a delightful gift to the disabled community!