At a distance, ABC’s family sitcoms can smack of pure laziness given the network’s slavish adherence to an in-house formula. Speechless has all the signifiers of a paint-by-numbers ABC half hour: an overbearing parent; a less overbearing, “cool” parent; precocious-to-a-fault siblings; and a focus on underrepresented groups. In the case of Speechless, the new seasoning on the old formula is adding the perspective of a family that includes a physically disabled child, the type of family almost never depicted on television. But Speechless is more than a triumph for media representation; it’s also just a really sharp, funny, and warm show. It’s the rare example of a formula executed deftly enough to remind the audience why the formula exists in the first place.
Speechless follows the nomadic DiMeo family to the latest in a long string of temporary residences deemed inappropriate by Maya (Minnie Driver), the fierce, forthright matriarch. Her main concern is always for J.J. (Micah Fowler), her son who uses a wheelchair and cannot speak as a result of cerebral palsy. To let Maya tell it, too many schools and neighborhoods lack the handicap-accessible facilities that would allow J.J. to grow up as much like a typical teenage boy as possible. That means frequent abrupt moves to increasingly shoddy homes for the whole DiMeo clan, which also includes J.J.’s siblings Ray (Mason Cook) and Dylan (Kyla Kenedy), and father Jimmy (John Ross Bowie). While J.J.’s siblings love and support him, there are times when those emotions occupy the same space as their frustration over the lack of continuity in their lives. Naturally, that frustration spills over into their relationship with Maya, who makes no attempt to hide that J.J. is her top priority.
Creator Scott Silveri, best-known for his long tenure as a Friends writer, has created a layered and fascinating character in Maya. She’s a terrific mother who is unyielding in her efforts to get J.J. what he needs, but that sometimes works to the detriment of her other relationships. Silveri’s hilarious pilot script keeps the character in balance and doesn’t allow the audience to valorize Maya or judge her. What is clear about Maya, and what makes her intriguing, is that she’s a naturally scrappy person who just happens to be in a righteous fight. She’s a woman with moxie to spare, cut in the mold of Julia Roberts’ performance in Erin Brockovich. (One character even refers to Maya as “Blind Side,” a reference to the Sandra Bullock film.) If she wasn’t on a tear about J.J.’s schooling, she’d likely be on a tear about something, anything else.
Speechless has equally refreshing takes on the everyday treatment disabled people receive, which judging from J.J.’s reception at his latest new school, consists of nonstop fluctuations between being treated like a king then a pauper. J.J. is shocked to discover that his homeroom has already decided to push him toward a run for student body president despite knowing nothing about him besides his disability. The pilot provides an early glimpse of how tough life can be for J.J., who must grow weary of being treated like he can’t do anything and being pressured into doing everything. But there’s nothing maudlin about how J.J. is written. He’s a foul-mouthed hell-raiser who just so happens to be in a motorized wheelchair, and Fowler’s performance is one of the most pleasant surprises of the fall television season.
In fact, all of the performances are winning, with Driver deserving most of the praise. Her take on Maya is so charismatic that it would be tempting to root for her even if she were fighting for the extermination of a litter of puppies. Bowie is pretty much perfect for a first-time sitcom dad, and Cedric Yarbrough makes a charming addition to the DiMeo family following events that are too fun and sweet to spoil. Speechless is shaping up to be one of the fall’s best comedies, and if this is what the ABC family sitcom factory is capable of building, may its conveyor belt never stop rolling.