If you've been watching ABC's family comedies over the last few years, Speechless will feel simultaneously familiar and unusual, both in ways that are reassuring. Since the debuts of Modern Family and The Middle, ABC has had an uncanny knack for developing single-camera comedies about families, each of them feeling like part of the some coherent brand, but having their own distinct voice and perspective. Not all of them have entirely clicked (The Real O'Neals is still figuring itself out, though it has moments), but there are safer bets in the TV business right now.
Based on the pilot episode, at least, Speechless (it debuts tomorrow at 8:30, in between The Goldbergs and Modern Family) looks like another winner. The hook here is that the family, headed by Maya DiMeo (Minnie Driver) – husband Jimmy (John Ross Bowie from Big Bang Theory) knows his role is to support Maya's leadership and vision – have built their lives around attending to the needs of J.J. (Micah Fowler), a 16-year-old with severe cerebral palsy that has left him in a wheelchair and unable to speak. He communicates with a laser pointer and a board filled with letters and commonly-used words, but has spent his childhood in special ed classes as Maya moves the family from school district to school district, to the dismay of younger kids Ray (Mason Cook) and Dylan (Kyla Kennedy), searching for the perfect fit.
As the series begins, Maya thinks she's finally found her answer in a posh Newport Beach school that likes to pat itself on the back for inclusiveness and diversity. (The principal, played by Marin Hinkle from Two and a Half Men, boasts that the school mascot recently switched from a Viking to a sea slug, because sea slugs have both male and female genitalia.) It is, of course, more complicated than that, and somehow by the end of the pilot, school groundskeeper Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) is working as J.J.'s aide, and using his own commanding voice as a substitute for the kid's improperly-functioning one.
For a premise pilot, the debut of Speechless (created by Friends alum Scott Silveri, who more recently created or co-created NBC's Perfect Couples and Go On) does an admirable job establishing the main characters and the family dynamics, like the way Maya's tireless advocacy for J.J. can be simultaneously admirable and exhausting to those around her, particularly the other people who live in the house with them.
“I'm not going to apologize for your brother,” she tells a frustrated Ray at one point. “He got the right mum.”
“Yeah, he did,” grumbles Ray.
It's not perfect right out of the gate – Kenneth needs to be defined by more than his amusement at Maya's unrelenting (and loud) mama bear style, though Yarbrough and Driver have a good comic rapport – but the family's likable, the writing finds humor in the world of special needs parenting without ever making fun of J.J. for his condition, and that world should provide plenty of fodder for Silveri and company to mine in success.
The latest school may not be the perfect place for J.J., but Speechless has absolutely landed in the right home.