ABC has been doing some great things with family comedies in recent years. “Black-ish,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” “The Goldbergs” and the “The Real O’Neals” more recently; “Modern Family” and “The Middle” for nearly a decade.
And it’s time to add “Speechless” to the list.
It gets the class stuff right
The Minnie Driver-led comedy chronicles the DiMeos, a middle class family that moves into the worst house in an affluent neighborhood to get their son J.J. (Micah Fowler), who has cerebral palsy, into a better school.
From the get-go, the family is firmly established as not being very affluent. The house they buy is in shambles and even after they tidy it up a bit, the three teenage children — two boys and a girl — share one bedroom, and the doorway to the one bathroom the family of five shares is too small for J.J.’s wheelchair.
It’s a nice change from watching well-off families deal with problems that don’t resonate with middle class or financially struggling families.
It gets the special needs stuff right
First off, the show cast an actor to play J.J. who has cerebral palsy in real life, albeit in a less severe form.
On “Speechless,” J.J. does not speak and instead communicates via a laser pointer and a board of the alphabet and common words. In real life, Fowler can speak and has a bigger range of motion than his on-screen counterpart.
But it’s still refreshing — and incredibly rare — to see an actor cast who actually mirrors his role in that way, since disabled TV characters are played by able-bodied actors 95 percent of the time, making people with disabilities the most under-represented minority in show business.
Secondly, J.J.’s interactions with fellow students, people in the community and even his aide Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) run the gamut of how special needs kids are treated — some want to coddle him, some gush about how inspirational he is, some merely pity him and some treat him just like any other kid, which can also be a bit of a twist:
In “B-O-N- BONFIRE,” after Maya (Driver) gets the school bonfire canceled because J.J. can’t access the beach, the kids decide they respect J.J. enough to tell him how much they resent him and it sucks he got their bonfire canceled (even though he had nothing to do with it) and replaced with an utterly awful “alternative bonfire.”
It gets the parenting stuff right
Maya and Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) go through a lot raising all three of their children. The show keeps its focus on how a special needs child can often dominate a family’s life, with one episode showing the DiMeos minus J.J. feeling guilty about having fun without him.
And for siblings Ray (Mason Cook) and Dylan (Kyla Kenedy), the feelings of neglect and having to work extra hard for attention are very real and color nearly every choice Ray and Dylan have made so far on the show.
Further, Maya and Jimmy struggle with their conflicting feelings of needing to punish their teenage son for drinking or staying out too late — but also feeling so grateful that J.J. is having “normal” teenage experiences and being included by his peers.
“We just grounded our special needs son for being a normal teenager!” Maya exclaims.
“Maya, we don’t say ‘normal,’ Jimmy reminds her.
“For being an idiot teenager!” she cheers.
With coming episodes that tackle J.J. wanting to date and meeting Jimmy’s extended family, “Speechless” is sure to continue firing on all cylinders.
“Speechless” airs at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on ABC. You can, and should, catch up with Season 1 on Hulu.