Speechless Might Be the Next Modern Family

Written by Chris Diggins

speechless

Speechless Series Premiere Plot Summary:

The DiMeo family are constantly moving to try to find the perfect school for their son J.J. (Micah Fowler), who has cerebral palsy. Their latest school once again fails to meet the exacting standards of his fearsome mother Maya (Minnie Driver), but middle child Ray (Mason Cook) finally feels like he’s found the right place.

It’s rare to see a half hour network sitcom handle a sensitive topic deftly and with good humor. And it’s rarer still to see one base its entire premise around such a topic. Given that, you could be forgiven for being a little apprehensive about Speechless, a new ABC show centered on a family with a son who has cerebral palsy. The fact that the actor they hired to play J.J. shares his character’s condition was an encouraging sign, but it’s still easy to imagine a lot of ways this could have gone wrong. Thankfully, those fears seem to have been misplaced, as the premiere skillfully avoids any potential pitfalls while delivering a highly entertaining half hour of TV.

(Photo Credit: Nicole Wilder/ABC)

Speechless has a tricky balance to try to strike, making J.J.’s cerebral palsy an important aspect of his character and the show in general without letting it be either one’s sole defining feature. And in the pilot at least, they’ve managed to pull it off. The plot of the episode is driven by the family’s latest move to find a good school for J.J., as well as Ray’s growing resentment over the constant uprooting of their lives. But this central conflict is shaded by the family’s other traits: Ray ends up liking the school because of its planetarium and astronomy club (and the girl who is its only member), sister Dylan (Kyla Kenedy) is annoyed that her running talent is treated as equally impressive as everyone else’s, and J.J.’s acerbic, even mean-spirited personality shines through in all of his scenes. Even Maya applies the same driven ferocity she uses to fight for J.J. to just about everything in her life, including making sure they make it to breakfast in time to use a coupon.

The best part of the balance it strikes, though, is how the show manages to touch upon pretty weighty themes without descending into melodrama or veering into after school special territory. Within this half hour, Speechless explores how siblings of a differently-abled teen can feel sidelined by their parents, how institutions and organizations tend to highlight inclusivity without actually taking the steps to be more inclusive, and how looking at the differently-abled as “inspirational” can be intensely othering for them. It’s not exactly an in-depth analysis of any of these topics, mind you, just a light touch upon them. Still, by presenting them as a reality in the lives of our characters, the show is able to create a really honest, believable depiction of how this family operates.

 (ABC/Eric McCandless)
(Photo Credit: Eric McCandless/ABC)

But don’t let all this heavy talk make you think the show isn’t funny. The writing is marvelously quick-witted, with a confidence in its comedic voice that you don’t often find in a pilot. Because the characters are already so well-defined, the humor can come from their specific foibles and outlooks, and specificity is always a great thing to have in comedy. And while every character has their moments, the comedy MVP would have to be John Ross Bowie as the family’s father, Jimmy. He’s the laid-back counterpart to his wife, and his casual, at times sardonic manner provides some of the episode’s best jokes at the same time as he functions as the glue keeping the family together.

The family sitcom has been evolving in a really interesting way these past few years. Shows like Modern Family and Black-ish have been pushing the boundaries of what it means to depict a family now, and in a lot of ways Speechless is an outgrowth of that trend. But that doesn’t make Speechless any less impressive for what it manages to achieve, nor any less entertaining. In fact, it seems likely that the show will soon be joining its forbears as one of the shining examples of the current sitcom epoch. As long as it keeps up this level of quality, it’s hard to see how it couldn’t.

RATING: 9 OUT OF 10

Speechless Airs Wednesdays at 8:30 PM on ABC