‘Speechless’ has much to say about sensitive subjects
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In the middle of the excellent "Speechless" premiere, J.J. DiMeo, a nonverbal teen with cerebral palsy, begins classes at a fancy new high school.
After the principal gushes to J.J. and his family about how the teachers "take great pride in our progressive and thoughtful environment," J.J. enters a classroom in his wheelchair to an exuberant standing ovation from the other students. The effusive teacher immediately assures J.J. that he's already winning the race for class president.
"Why?" asks J.J., using a computer communication device that's read aloud by his newly appointed aide. "You don't know me." J.J.'s eyebrows are supremely arched.
"We don't have to," the teacher explains, "You're an inspiration!"
"Speechless," which premieres Wednesday at 8:30 p.m., is sure enough on its feet to direct its humor at many different sides of life with disabilities, including the sanctimony of the politically correct. Despite the administration's vocal deference to J.J. (played by Micah Fowler), despite its inclusive philosophy, the high school does not have a wheelchair ramp. J.J. must enter through an undignified garbage door in the back of the school.
It's one of the winning qualities of "Speechless," the latest addition to ABC's cluster of shows that join the domestic comedy format to a group traditionally marginalized on TV. Creator Scot Silveri ("Friends") isn't afraid to find humor and wisdom — and very little schmaltz — in all kinds of sensitive situations. Like ABC's "Black-ish," which airs in the same Wednesday night block, "Speechless" sets out a subject that tends to perplex and stymie much of our culture, and then it dives in fearlessly, with irreverence intact.
Silveri also provides good laughs at the expense of J.J.'s mother, Maya, played with ferocity by Minnie Driver. No doubt, Maya is the heroine of the show in so many ways. She is all about J.J., and she is constantly finding flaws in how people treat him. Every child with special needs deserves such a passionate advocate, but at times we can see that she may be going over the top with the Mama Bear stuff.
Maya has moved the family six times, for example, in her search for a better education for J.J. That has taken its toll on her other two children, Ray (Mason Cook) and Dylan (Kyla Kenedy) — and "Speechless" regularly illustrates how the presence of a special needs child affects the entire family organism. At one point, Maya tears apart black school worker Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) for using the word "crippled." "Speaking as the black man in Newport," he says to her, "a person who gets pulled over twice before he pulls out of the parking lot, the irony of being called intolerant is not lost on me." Kenneth, who turns out to be one of J.J.'s best supporters, gives Maya a great nickname: "Blind Side."
Maya has moved the family, which includes gentle dad Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), to the wealthy Newport Beach area to benefit from the town's coffers and policies, which will provide J.J. with full-time help. The DiMeos aren't rich, but they buy the cheapest, most dilapidated house in town as an entrée. Maya's reputation for making public scenes precedes her: When two cops see her speeding, one tells the other not to bother: "Not her. Life's too short."
Driver is impeccable in the role, and her comic timing is perfection, just as it was on "About a Boy" and "Will & Grace." But the rest of the cast is impressive too, most notably Fowler, who has cerebral palsy. With eye rolls and head movements, he creates a character who is as dimensional as everyone else on the show. We can see him cringing at his mother's behavior, or nodding knowingly at his siblings, or tossing off a cynical look, and by the end of the pilot his personality is vivid and endearing and unidealized. He's an integral part of one of TV's best new families.
Starring: Minnie Driver, Micah Fowler, John Ross Bowie, Mason Cook, Kyla Kenedy
On ABC, Wednesday night, 8:30-9