The first half of tonight’s Speechless double-feature (8 & 8:30 p.m., ABC) will get some deserved attention for its lavish musical number, a parody of “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory in which Maya explores the underrated parts of jury duty. (You may have heard this: Minnie Driver can sing.) But the more important part of the episode comes in a subplot where J.J. creates a dating website profile and is dismayed to learn the number of reasons girls might have for wanting to date a person with a disability — reasons having nothing to do with J.J. himself.
From day one, Speechless has committed to not letting J.J. be defined by his cerebral palsy, but the first season nonetheless had to do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of establishing the mechanics of his everyday life, the constant fights his parents have to go through to get him the accommodations he needs, his adjustment to life in a mainstream classroom, etc. He had a clear personality — an impressive feat for a character who’s non-verbal and limited in his movements, it’s a testimony to what an expressive actor Micah Fowler is — but a lot of his stories were explicitly about him trying to get people to see past the wheelchair and at the kid sitting in it.
Second seasons of family shows can be tricky because the kids start aging rapidly — Mason Cook, who plays middle son Ray, grew into a Division III point guard overnight — and the kinds of stories that would have been easy to write for them in one season no longer apply in the next. Making a show about a special needs family already has a high degree of difficulty — which I discussed with the creative team late last year — yet Speechless‘ second season has been stronger than its first.
Some of this is just the learning curve any well-run show experiences, where the writers figure out what their actors do best, and how to tweak character and story elements. Season two, for instance, has more frequently put Cedric Yarborough’s Kenneth one-on-one with DiMeo family members other than J.J., because he makes a great foil for everyone, while Ray got a girlfriend — Sedona James’ Taylor, who’s simultaneously way out of his league and so uptight that they’re a perfect match — to give him something to feel good about in the face of relentless mockery from everyone else.
But the smartest thing Speechless has done has been to lean into the challenge that J.J. faces every day, by focusing on the things that make him tick beyond the CP, and to be sure that he always has a voice, regardless of which other character is there to read off of his word board.
It turns out that, for all of Maya’s superheroic efforts to get him the best education possible, he’s failing many of his classes. For practical reasons, this allows the show to keep him in the same school for an extra year (and puts off having to explain Kenneth’s continued presence once the school district isn’t paying for him to be J.J.’s aide), but it also speaks to the fact that he’s not some idealized role model of disability, and also to his own understandable anxieties: a lot of this year’s stories (including the one in tonight’s second episode) involve J.J. worrying about failure in spite of all the accommodations his parents and the school have arranged for him. Season two has also emphasized his love of film — he finally has a best friend, a fellow movie geek who speaks almost entirely in quoted dialogue, and in tonight’s second episode gets to direct a horror movie starring his classmates — and also his desire to meet girls, bringing the two together in an episode where he tried to get a job as an extra in a campus sex comedy. He’s sensitive about people focusing on the chair, but also painfully aware of the hoops people sometimes have to go through to hang out with him. (Last week’s episode involved J.J. and his new friend trying to make a Goodfellas screening in conditions that weren’t very wheelchair-friendly.)