Hollywood’s portrayal of people with special-needs has always been rife with problems. Movies like Me Before You and The Theory of Everything came under fire for casting able-bodied actors in roles of people with disability. No matter how good the performance, there is always an undercurrent that just feels wrong. If we’re trying to tell stories from different perspectives, shouldn’t someone with that actual perspective be involved? ABC decided to do just that with Speechless, a new family sitcom about a mother who just wants a better life for her son with cerebral palsy. While family-based comedies aren’t hard to find, Speechless feels like something new, starting with the casting of an actor with disabilities.
Produced by Friends‘ Scott Silveri, based on his own relationship with his brother who has cerebral palsy, Speechless tackles the issues that face its central family, the DiMeos, in a smart and funny way, by exploring the relationships at its center. Minnie Driver’s Maya, the matriarch of the family, is a fierce advocate for her 16-year-old son JJ (Micah Fowler), who has cerebral palsy and is nonverbal. She’s moved her family a number of times in order to get JJ into the right educational system. The constant changes are a strain on her other two children, Ray (Mason Cook) and Dylan (Kyla Kennedy), and her husband, Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), serves as the steady half of their marriage.
As they are thrust into a new, upscale school district on the promise of a better education for JJ, they find that it’s an odd mix of patronizing and inadequate. Sure, having access to a personal aide to speak for JJ should be a blessing, but having both the staff and teachers treat him like he’s an angel is too much for the kid. He’s as sarcastic, surly, and funny as any other teenager, because that’s precisely what he is: a teenager. At the same time that everyone is telling him that he’s so brave, though, the only entrance into the school that can accommodate his wheelchair is the garbage ramp at the back of school.
The message to JJ is clear: you’re a saint, but you’re also making people uncomfortable. For a kid who just wants to be seen as more than his disability, that cruel message more than hits home. Still, while the DiMeo family may have the squabbles that plague any family, they are a truly united front. This is a family that faces their battles together. While things certainly aren’t perfect by the end of the episode, the dedication to making sure that all of the kids have their needs met while also getting a better fit for an aid to give JJ a voice in the form of groundsman Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) is enough to give this family a little hope.
The whole cast acquits themselves well, but Driver, Fowler, and Cook are given the most to do. Driver’s Maya just wants to provide a better situation for all of her children, but most of her energy goes to JJ. Parents to children with special needs often face an uphill battle in their quest for education, health care, and equality for their kids, and Maya tackles those challenges with her teeth bared. Bowie’s Jimmy is a quieter presence in the family, but at least Speechless has the good sense to avoid the Sitcom Dad trope of the uninterested, bumbling father.
However, the heart of the series is the relationship between Fowler and Cook. So many child actors either lean towards the precocious to the downright annoying, but these two build a believable relationship between brothers quickly. Yes, they love each other, but they’re both selfish because teenagers are inherently selfish. The entire DiMeo family is a conglomeration of messy flaws, but the show is the better for it.
On top of being genuinely funny, Speechless nails what it’s like being in a family with a special needs child. I grew up with a younger brother with severe cerebral palsy, among other health issues, and there were moments that I felt like I was watching my own family, albeit with better lighting and a quippy script: Navigating parking lots in a giant van with a wheelchair lift in the back. Moving to be closer to doctors. The small, selfish moments when you wish that it could be all about you just once, followed up by a heaping helping of guilt. The fact of the matter is that families with special needs kids are just like every other family. They fight, they laugh, they deal with their obstacles. It shouldn’t be such an anomaly to see this kind of family on television, but it is. With this mix of message and genuinely funny moments, Speechless is one to watch.
Speechless airs Wednesday nights at 8:30 EST on ABC.