The time has come again. The summer sun has set. The days grow colder and the nights grow longer and we fill those nights with new fall TV. As happens every autumn, the five major networks have unleashed a flurry of new programs to entertain us into these dark, frigid winter months and beyond. So many choices. So much risk! How will you know what to watch? That’s where I come in. I watch every new fall pilot episode so that you don’t have to. I take one for the team, so you can watch the… screen(m). It’s time for…
THE PILOT PROJECT (2016 Edition)
Speechless (Wednesdays on ABC)
ABC has done well for itself in building a reliable stable of funny, progressive family sitcoms that includes Black-ish, Fresh Off The Boat, The Real O’Neals, and Modern Family. These shows all deal with (to differing extents) real issues surrounding race, gender, sexuality, and tolerance while also being very funny. The one issue that ABC hasn’t touched on, however, is individuals dealing with disabilities. Enter Speechless.
Speechless is an important show in that it is, to my knowledge, the first network comedy to feature a lead actor with a disability – in this case, Micah Fowler. Fowler, like his character J.J. DiMeo, has cerebral palsy. While Fowler’s symptoms are not as severe as J.J.’s (J.J. is nonverbal and has a very limited range of motion), it lends an air of authenticity to the show and it was definitely the right move, especially in a world where Jeffrey Tambor (star of Amazon’s Transparent) calls out shows for casting cis males as transgender characters. It’s a move that could easily feel like a stunt, but the show sidesteps this with writing that is smart and genuine. Oh, and funny.
The cast is great too. The always excellent Minnie Driver plays J.J.’s mother Maya, an aggressive fire-cracker of a woman who is fiercely defensive of her son and the kind of mother that everyone else wants to steer clear of. Driver relishes this role that could have been rather thankless and infuses it with humor and likeability. She’s a nightmare, but you love her for it. In comparison, Jimmy, the father (played by John Ross Bowie), comes off as the quiet voice of reason, while also delivering some of the pilot’s funniest lines. The family is rounded out by J.J.’s two siblings: Dylan, the spunky, athletic younger sister (Kyla Kenedy), and Ray, the somewhat sad, nerdy middle-child (Mason Cook), who seems to be the other focal point of the show. When Maya uproots the family in order to better serve J.J.’s needs by moving them to a nicer neighborhood with a more “inclusive” school, Ray is distraught over the fact that his life is being ruined once again by a mother who seems to only care for J.J.. It’s a well-tread area in family-centered shows, but it works well in this context. Finally, Cedric Yarbrough plays Kenneth, the janitor-turned-aide who balances irreverence with kindness when dealing with J.J. and his family.
The school itself is filled with “open-minded” characters who border on offensively progressive, but it works because the writers takes aim at both overly-politically correct culture as well as the culture of inclusivity, doing so with tact and reverence. Speechless could have come across as insensitive or cloying, but deftly dodges both extremes to deliver an entertaining, thoughtful experience.
Recommendation: Watch it