A review of last night’s Speechless — but really, thoughts on the ABC comedy’s wonderful first season as a whole — coming up just as soon as I tell you what was inside Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase…
When it debuted in the fall, Speechless seemed like another impressive product from the ABC family sitcom factory, feeling simultaneously linked to the other ones and distinct because of its premise and focus on special needs children and parents. Over the course of this season, it’s evolved into my favorite of the bunch, in part because it has the advantage of being the new kid on the block (black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, and the others haven’t gotten worse, but they’re inherently less surprising after being around a few years), but also because Scott Silveri and company have done such a great job of digging deeper into the world and its characters.
Maya needed no expanding, because the character and Minnie Driver’s blunt performance (“Oi!” has become a preferred exclamation in our household) arrived fully-formed. But the writers have gradually figured out what makes the others tick, so that even though Jimmy is deferential to Maya on virtually everything, he’s also the one who sets the emotional tone for the family, and also the one who draws the ethical line between the DiMeos trying to derive benefits from their situation and just being jerks. John Ross Bowie’s underplaying makes the bigness of what Driver’s doing possible; under perfect circumstances, like Kaczmarek and Cranston on Malcolm in the Middle(*), you can have two operatic performances, but a balance works better.
(*) Full credit to @toetyper on Twitter for opening my eyes to the many parallels between Speechless and Malcolm: terrifying alpha mom, cowed beta dad who has let the house fall down around him (much to the chagrin of the neighbors), a smart middle kid constantly objecting to how the family conducts itself, etc. The reality of Malcolm was more exaggerated, but they’re definitely spiritual cousins.
Like its ABC siblings, Speechless smartly uses its premise to make the specific universal, and vice versa, wrapping familiar comedy beats (Dylan pranks Ray, Jimmy and Maya try to rekindle the spark in their marriage) around the particulars of J.J.’s disability, and how that impacts even the smallest detail of what his family does. And at the same time, the writers wisely never lose sight of the fact that J.J. is a teenage boy with his own personality and flaws, and not just an object lesson for the people around him. He doesn’t speak with his voice, but we know what he likes and doesn’t, what his sense of humor is, the circumstances under which he’s willing to turn other people’s pity to his own advantage, and when he’s as frustrated at being used as someone else’s inspiration as he is by his own physical limitations. It’s excellent writing, and an incredibly appealing performance by Micah Fowler.
Last night’s “O-S OSCAR P-A- PARTY” revisited one of the show’s recurring themes, about the ways that Maya and Jimmy have let a lot of traditional aspects of adult/family life atrophy due to their focus on J.J. I have a lot of special needs families in my circle of friends and relatives, and this has always rung incredibly true, even if the crumbling state of the DiMeo home takes the idea to extremes. Here, the show cleverly deployed the wonderful Michaela Watkins as a woman who immediately makes Maya and the other special needs moms in her group feel inadequate because she’s so organized and put-together in a way they haven’t been able to be in forever. As with a lot of Maya stories, it walked the knife edge between her being sympathetic and her being kind of awful, as her attempts to keep the other women sloppy was as much about protecting Maya’s own self-image as about making them feel better about themselves, and it climaxed on a dryly humorous note with a botched food fight in Watkins’ immaculate pantry, where all the food is vacuum-sealed twice over.
The Jimmy subplot, meanwhile, hit the same idea from a different angle, as he helped the dads in the group realize that they need to reclaim some piece of their own personalities that aren’t about meeting the many needs of their wives and kids. Kenneth and J.J.’s story turned inclusivity into slapstick, as Kenneth tried to find a way to get all the kids at the party, each with a different disability, to be able to play the same movie triva game, and then to be able to brawl with one another. Because the show’s intentions, like Kenneth’s, come from a genuine and empathetic place, it’s able to get away with absurdity like that. And the weight of all the special needs material in turn gives the show license to do something completely silly like Ray trying to romance a fellow partygoer who self-identifies as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Given the state of scripted TV at the moment, my job involves me watching a lot of heavy stuff. Like my podcasting partner, I occasionally want to sit back and enjoy something lighter that just makes me happy. The premise of Speechless could easily knock it out of the comfort food category, but the show continually finds the sweet spot where it feels simultaneously honest and silly, pragmatic but warm, and one of the highlights of my viewing week.
What does everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org