ABC’s ‘Speechless’: A Bold Comedy Portrays a Quirky Family With a Special-Needs Teen

speechless-abc-tv-series-key-art-logo-740x416Last night, ABC premiered a new comedy called “Speechless,” and it did something that no network comedy has done for me in years — it made me laugh. Out loud. Repeatedly.

It was also good — both as comedy and as a family comedy, and that’s saying something, coming from the network that brought us “The Real O’Neals.”

Here’s how ABC describes it:

Maya DiMeo (Minnie Driver) is a mom on a mission who will do anything for her husband Jimmy, her kids Ray, Dylan, and JJ, her eldest son with cerebral palsy. As Maya fights injustices both real and imagined, the family works to make a new home for themselves, and searches for just the right person to give JJ his “voice.”

Speechless stars Minnie Driver as Maya DiMeo, John Ross Bowie as Jimmy DiMeo, Mason Cook as Ray DiMeo, Micah Fowler as JJ DiMeo, Kyla Kennedy as Dylan DiMeo and Cedric Yarbrough as Kenneth.

Writing for Aleteia, the Frech family — which includes Catholic blogger mom Rebecca, and daughter Ella, who uses a wheelchair — said:

The character of J.J. DeMeo in Speechless isn’t a person to be pitied, or a burden on his family, or a prop in the background. He’s an important part of his family. He’s funny, smart, and resourceful. The fact that he uses a chair and can’t talk aren’t as important to his character as his personality is.

J.J. isn’t the only one that had us cheering. His mom, Maya, is exactly like every special needs mom we’ve ever met. They’re strong, bossy, pushy, sarcastic, and they love their families intensely. These moms demand that the world accept their children for the amazing people that they are, and that their children never have to apologize for what everyone else might see as their shortcomings. Maya wasn’t portrayed as some sort of heroic saintly super-mom, but flawed and too often riding rough over the world around her, including her other children, in order to get J.J. what is in his best interest. Her character was real, and we liked her all the more for it.

Earlier, 11-year-old Ella Frech had a few things to say to Hollywood about its portrayal of people with various disabilities:

Me Before You comes out tomorrow. I’ve never read the book, but my mom told me about it and I read the reviews online. It’s the story of a guy who gets in an accident, and has a spinal cord injury, and has to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. A guy you think should want to die because he has to live a life that looks like mine.

Well, what’s wrong with a life that looks like mine?

My mom says this isn’t the first movie where a handicapped person had to die for being paralyzed. There was one called Million Dollar Baby where a woman is a quad and bravely chooses death instead of an imperfect life.

So I’m asking you again, what’s wrong with my life? Why do you think I should want to die?

You sit there with your able bodies, and look at people in chairs and think you feel pity for our sad little lives, but the truth is you’re afraid. You don’t want to imagine that you might be one of us one day. You think you can be perfect, and think you’d rather die than have parts that don’t work right.

I think that’s sad.

“Speechless” has also hired a disabled actor to play the part of JJ. It probably costs more in terms of production efficiency, but it gives the series real authenticity (and probably teaches the other actors and writers a lot about the reality of the situation).

Said executive producer Scott Silveri, in Variety:

“For me, it was never a question,” show creator Scott Silveri says about casting Fowler. “God bless the studio and the network for not questioning that. I had geared up for a big fight, but the fight never came. There wasn’t the pushback I expected.”

Silveri — who based “Speechless” loosely off of his own experience growing up with an older brother with a disability — says he’s been wanting to do a show like “Speechless” for nearly 20 years, and while he happened to be developing something on his own, he found out ABC was looking for a show about a family with a special needs child.

“I expected to be some trailblazing vanguard like ‘It’s time!’ and I never got to do my speech,” Silveri says with a laugh.

Here are a few things I loved about “Speechless” (in no particular order):

  • The dad is awesome. He’s not a typical sitcom dad, which is to say, he’s sharp and funny and loving.
  • Minnie Driver gets to use her own British accent. It’s not explained; it doesn’t need to be.
  • JJ’s siblings have the hard job of holding their own in a family where all the energy bends toward their brother. They’re tough and fun and have strong lives of their own.
  • All things P.C. get hilariously skewered at JJ’s new school, which exemplifies a lot of the worst of the fuzzy-headedness and misguided “sensitivity” infecting much of modern education.
  • JJ gets a lot of the best lines, even if somebody else is voicing them.

As for faith, there isn’t any mentioned — other than when the father comments that the new family home’s abundance of cellphone bars will allow him to “call God” — but neither is it denigrated. Obviously, we’d love it if the family turned out to be Catholic, but I’m not holding my breath. However, it’s not a dealbreaker.

While the rough-edged DeMeos aren’t exactly the Waltons, they’re real and relatable. Other than defending JJ’s human dignity, the show doesn’t appear, so far, to have any agendas, progressive or otherwise.

Click here to watch the first episode, if you missed it. Tune in to subsequent episodes Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on ABC. It’s also available on ABC’s WebsiteHulu and Amazon Prime Video.

Image: Courtesy ABC

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