Photo: ABC

Hey Speechless fans, thanks for joining the A.V. Club’s reviews of this delightful family sitcom. For the first foray out of the gate, I hope you don’t think I just give out A grades like candy, but this was truly one of Speechless’ finest episodes—and that is saying something.

This show is at its best when it leans into the family dynamic, the issues raising a special needs child, and the socio-economic struggle, and veers away from the absurdism. Those are all things “C-H— CHEATER!” did in spades, managing to touch on so many real, grounded issues that culminated in two scenes that actually got the waterworks going at my house.

The main storyline this week is about JJ kind of cheating at school. It’s not overt cheating, like if he had rigged it up to receive answers over his head set or something, but JJ has gotten very accustomed to receiving special help from teachers and even Kenneth, which means he’s not actually learning anything on his own.

Maya is irate about it, which is nice to see. This feels like something Maya would be angry about, but she also is a protective mama bear and it wouldn’t have been a huge shock if she had reacted a different way.

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But luckily, she reacts exactly the way she should react—outraged that her son who desperately wanted to be challenged in a mainstream school isn’t taking full advantage of the learning opportunity and is instead taking advantage of getting lots of breaks from people.

Maya doesn’t yell and scream at him, but she does force JJ to start studying on his own because she wants him to go on to have as great of a life as he can have and that starts with good education.

JJ’s reaction is also perfect. He’s gotten so used to having help that he’s afraid of being exposed as dumb if he has to do things on his own. It’s a classic gifted child reaction to being challenged. As the history teacher says, JJ is very bright, so naturally he fears being exposed as less than that when he isn’t receiving help.

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In a great conclusion, he doesn’t ace his first test. He gets a B- —which is fine, but he knows he can do better.

This whole storyline, including Kenneth being so proud of himself because he’s learning too just by being in class with JJ, is so incredibly well done that it would have made for a really good episode in and of itself.

But the way it dovetails with Ray and Jimmy’s storyline was what drove this episode from good to great. In a humorous side plot, it’s career fair day at school and Ray is greedily asking every booth what kind of salary their career can pull. He ends up being taken in by a jewelry pyramid scheme and it all feels like a very run of the mill B-plot—cute, funny, and in character, because the show has already established that Ray likes the finer things in life and wishes they had more money.

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However, when Jimmy tries to show him life is about more than money, Ray reveals that he wants to make good money as an adult because he’s concerned about JJ and what happens to JJ when his parents are gone—something it turns out Dylan worries about as well.

It was so sweet and so unexpected that as a parent, I couldn’t help but cry over the thoughtfulness. Sometimes your kids really surprise you in that regard, and Speechless captured that perfectly this episode.

But the hits don’t stop there. When Jimmy and Maya sit down to talk to Ray and Dylan about JJ’s future, JJ overhears and dejectedly leaves the house to go talk to Kenneth. Oof. It was especially hard to watch him hear his mom say he probably won’t realistically live on his own.

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It completely undercuts her rah-rah cheerleading that he needs to work hard and earn things so he can have a great life if it turns out she doesn’t really think he can have much of a life. But it’s much more complicated than that, more complicated than a 16-year-old can probably appreciate.

JJ might be able to have a very independent life—but he might not. It really depends on what kind of job he gets, if he meets someone who can be both a partner in life but also an aid, what kind of caretaker he can afford to employ. It’s a delicate balance, but all JJ heard was that his mom doesn’t really believe in him.

Maya is going to be devastated when she finds out, because she’s not wrong to be a rah-rah cheerleader. JJ needs that and it is possible to be both a cheerleader and a realist. But he’s not going to understand that right now.

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I feel like I just watched Speechless’ Emmy submission. It has put forth a really solid first season, but this episode was a cut above and I can’t wait to watch the repercussions of it all in the next episode.

Stray observations

  • I would pay all the money in my wallet to get to see one of Kenneth’s jazz brunches. In fact, it’s a real shame that the tag was the history teacher writing a script and not a glimpse into that hep cat’s weekend festivities.
  • Ray: “Aw, Aunt Molly died.”
    Jimmy: “Uncle Frank had a baby—push.”
    A purge of emails, voicemails and snail mail is a terrific idea.
  • Maya: “Emma Watson. Emma Watson hot. Emma Watson wheelchair user boyfriend?”
    Kenneth: “It’s a beautiful thing, hope.”
    It’s delightful that JJ loves Emma Watson, even if it is totally unbelievable that a teenage boy’s search history is something they could show on primetime network television.
  • Maya: “We don’t have that kind of money lying around. Ugh, Jimmy, you’re going to have to become a gigolo.”
    Jimmy: “I’m worried that would be almost too lucrative.”
    Side note — another really touching, realistic aspect of this episode that gets lost in the shuffle is Jimmy’s revelation he was studying to be an architect and quit when Maya got pregnant with JJ to find a steady job with insurance. That one hits close to home, it’s a situation a lot of young parents find themselves in. I hope they revisit that at some point, like maybe Jimmy can find time to pursue it again?

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