Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Pilot Review: Speechless

Speechless (Wednesdays at 8:30 on ABC; Premieres September 21)

Speechless is the type of show where you are immediately going to have an opinion about it before you know anything more than its logline: "A disabled teenager and his family move into a new neighborhood so he can attend a better school." You'll either think this is a show missing from the television landscape, portraying the struggles of disabled people and those supporting them. Or you'll think it's an eye-rolling downer made to appease the PC police. Either way, Speechless is here to prove you wrong.

For starters, the pilot is not really about JJ (Micah Fowler), the smart-as-a-whip teen boy who has cerebral palsy. Our window into the world of the quirky, off-kilter Dimeo family is actually JJ's younger brother Ray (the fantastically charming Mason Cook, Legends). While JJ is certainly the center of the Dimeo family, mostly because of his special needs, he's not the focal point of the first episode. In an interesting twist, rather than telling JJ's story, Speechless is more a story of a family and how they learn to, ironically, listen to each other, even when one of them must spell out his communication with an alphabet board and a laser pointer. For years, mama bear Maya Dimeo (Minnie Driver) and agreeable dad Jimmy (The Big Bang Theory's John Ross Bowie) have moved the family from town to town in search of better accommodations and education for JJ. The latest move has them shacking up in "the worst house in the best neighborhood," located right on the train tracks and literally falling apart on the inside. But for the first time, a move to benefit one child actually seems to be working out for the other kids, Ray and high-strung track star Dylan (Kyla Kenedy, The Night Shift): the latter because the school renovated its track to the tune of $2 million, and the former because he finally finds a friend (and maybe more) in fellow astronomy nerd Jillian. But Maya can't help herself from raising hell at the new school, berating the principal (Marin Hinkle, Two and a Half Men) for not having a handicapped ramp at the main entrance, and potentially upsetting Ray's newfound happiness.

The most successful aspect of Speechless's pilot is how well it establishes its characters. From the opening scene, we get an exact sense of who the Dimeos are. Maya hurries the kids into a van, speeding through town to make it to breakfast on time before a coupon expires. They whiz past police officers who don't bother pulling her over ("Life's too short.") and squeal into the last handicapped parking spot, Ray begging her to slow down and Dylan shouting at a man whose broken down car has caused traffic while Jimmy sips coffee. And then JJ descends from the rear of the van in his wheelchair, flipping off a couple of guys snickering at him. In less than 5 minutes, everyone's character is formed. Perhaps because JJ is in a wheelchair and his arc is the most obvious, it's not the pilot's focal point. Instead, creator Scott Silveri (Go On, Friends) has chosen to tell Ray's story, and it's a relatable one: he feels ignored by his parents because all their focus is on JJ. That's exactly how Speechless could have gone as a show too, but it doesn't. It gives Ray a beautiful scene with his father (bonding as they watch cars hit the bottom of a hill too fast and shoot up sparks); it gives Maya a hysterically over-the-top interaction with the principal and school janitor over what constitutes proper language and treatment regarding the disabled; it gives Maya and Jimmy a quiet moment as she realizes that she fights too hard for one child and not enough for the others.

And as great as these scenes are, and as wonderful as they are acted by the cast, Fowler's JJ is the breakout star of Speechless. He's nothing like what you would expect from a wheelchair-bound, voiceless adolescent. Silveri writes JJ against type; he doesn't exist to garner sympathy from the audience. His story isn't being told because it adds to the diversity of network TV. JJ is a funny, witty kid with a typical teenage boy sense of humor. When he meets his interpreter, the person who will read for him and be his "voice," he's angry and amused that it turns out to be a high-pitched woman... so he spends the rest of the episode making fun of her for looking like a Disney fairy godmother (in the middle of a family argument, he makes her read "Bippity Boppity Boo" out loud). JJ is not a victim. As a character, he's designed to make you laugh with him rather than gawk at him. But he's also kind of a dick, just like any teenage boy would be; at one point, he spells out "this place sucks," which Ray reads out loud and then gets scolded for when Maya hears him, JJ immediately playing it off like he hadn't done anything while smirking to himself. It's just one way Speechless skewers the kind of PC inclusivity it also represents. The show proves a disabled character can exist on primetime television without being reduced to stereotypes or victimhood, yet it also occasionally teaches the audience a lesson on being tolerant. The balance is perfect, making for a wholly enjoyable, funny and heartwarming viewing experience.

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