Speechless: a review

It has been a very long time since I sat down and watched a family comedy with any regularity. Truth be told, I think that would have been Malcolm in the Middle’s inaugural season back at the turn of the century. In the current age of peak TV, with so little time, there is always something good that you are going to miss out on. My tastes generally lean towards dark comedy that is peppered throughout TV dramas such as Better Call Saul. So it may come as a surprise to see me gushing over Speechless.

Speechless is an ABC comedy that revolves around the working class DiMeo family. Maya (Minnie Driver) and Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) are parents to J.J. (Micah Fowler), Ray (Mason Cook) and Dylan (Kyla Kenedy). Eldest son, J.J. has cerebral palsy. He is non-verbal, wheelchair dependant and requires a personal aide worker, Kevin (Cedric Yarbrough), at school. Watching the every day struggles of this family with the added complications of advocating for people with disabilities in an atmosphere of love and humour is such a joyful experience. I wish I started watching this sooner, but better late than never.

I first heard of this TV show when the pilot episode was made available as a free download via iTunes. I downloaded it for a couple of reasons, it was free and I absolutely adore Minnie Driver (ever since my first big screen encounter, Circle of Friends) but I never got around to watching it. Then my beloved Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast featured it alongside This is Us. I liked what I heard about it; alas I had too much to watch at the time. Since everyone at work was talking about This is Us, I decided to jump on that band wagon (glad I did) first. Speechless remained at the back of my mind. Then came March Break and a long flight home. What should I find but the first 4 episodes of Speechless available as inflight entertainment. I binged it and was hooked. Since then I have caught up because 2 seasons worth of episodes (23+18) are replayed most evenings on Canada’s Family Channel.

Speechless has much of the quirky charm that made Malcolm in the Middle so endearing. I love that Speechless eschews a laugh track. The writing is super clever (as opposed to a string of cultural references that often passes as comedy) and it deftly manages to flesh out each member of this scrappy family beyond the usual TV sit-com formula. Sure Maya is a mama bear and Jimmy is pretty laid back but there is more to them than that. We see Maya bulldozing through as she advocates for her eldest son’s needs. She is often oblivious to the needs of her other children. Her forceful and flawed nature is tempered with humour and charm. Jimmy stands back and watches, most of the time. Yet in doing so, he sees all. His timely yet gentle interaction with each of his children, often 1-on-1, strikes a brilliant balance. Despite being non-verbal, J.J. is in no way non-communicative. With the use of a word board and laser pointer we hear him loud and clear. His personality is mischievous, sarcastic and the endless sibling rivalry is hilarious to watch. Youngest child Dylan seems to channel her anger and energy in athletics with a furious passion to win. Middle child Ray is such a nervous rule follower. He is constantly at odds with the rest of his family. We watch his pain as he gets roped into family schemes as they navigate a complicated bureaucracy of school administrators and insurance adjusters.

A part of me can relate to many of these characters. I have a soft spot for Maya, she’s an imperfect take charge kind of mom. I can also relate to Ray, as a young person striving for the things out of his reach due to stark financial hardship. The DiMeo’s make no secret of how expensive it is to have chronic health problems in the USA these days and yet this show never gets preachy about it. This show is often zinger after zinger, with some physical comedy thrown in that really cracks me up.

This show is the brainchild of Scott Silveri (best known as a writer on Friends) who modeled the DiMeo’s after his own family that included a brother with cerebral palsy. This show is nuanced in how it treats people with special needs. It deserves kudos in all its casting, bust special mention to Micah Fowler, who also has cerebral palsy, as J.J. If you are looking for a show that has depth in its characters and themes and will also make you chuckle, then this is definitely worth a try. I am eagerly anticipating its return this fall for a 3rdseason and will have my PVR set for it.

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