“Speechless” is a wry, nimble comedy, and supplies yet more proof that when it comes to half-hours, TV is providing a bountiful array of excellent options. Many of the non-dramas getting the most attention these days are cable and streaming programs that are not quite comedies in the traditional sense. That’s not a dig at those shows, which are often both deeply personal and energetically subversive, but comedies on the broadcast networks can’t necessarily go to the darkest places.
“Speechless” is a good example of how a willingness to explore challenging topics, when united with crisp commercial instincts and warmhearted compassion, can produce admirable results. If it sustains the quality of its terrific pilot, “Speechless” is likely to emerge as the best new broadcast network comedy of the year.
The headline about “Speechless” is that one of its characters is disabled, but the show gleefully avoids being treacly or sentimental. From the outset, it treats J.J. DiMeo (Micah Fowler) as a multifaceted character who has flaws and likable qualities, just like everyone else in his fractious, loving family of five.
Within the first few minutes of the pilot, J.J. is given opportunities to be sarcastic and a little bit spiky; he enjoys teasing his brother, and at one point, he gives someone the finger (in other words, the 16-year-old J.J. acts like the teenager he is). He can’t speak and often relies on a board with letters and numbers to communicate, but the exasperation on his face is clear when he is hailed as an “inspiration” by a misguided teacher he’s never met before. At various points, he expresses annoyance with his mother, and he does not need an aide or any other assistance to deliver a perfectly expressive eye roll. Fowler, who has cerebral palsy, gives a performance that is every bit as rich and energetic as those given by the rest of the skilled cast.
One of J.J.’s sources of frustration is the chirpy aide assigned to him by his new school, which is in a wealthy district that feels alien to his much less affluent family. They’ve taken up residence in what J.J.’s brother, the resigned Ray (Mason Cook), dubs a “crack house.” But their mother, Maya (Minnie Driver), is determined to take advantages of educational resources that will help J.J., regardless of the economic or social strain on the rest of the family.
In an effort to avoid mawkish predictability, “Speechless” could have gone in the other direction and leaned too hard on sarcasm, but like “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Black-ish,” “Speechless” takes on loaded situations by combining fairly well-defined characters with regular infusions of deft intelligence and dry wit. When Maya complains about the school’s lack of a ramp, employee Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough), calmly points out the irony of a white person lecturing a black man on prejudicial assumptions. More than once, he calls her “Blind Side,” and the jibe is funny because it’s sort of true. An administrator points out that the school teams are no longer called the Vikings because of the word’s connotations of sexual violence, but that same administrator tries to convince Maya that she should just accept that her son has to make do with a ramp used by workers who take out the school’s trash.
Nobody in the show has the moral high ground, certainly not J.J., who, like Louis Canning on “The Good Wife,” is not above using his disability to manipulate the people around him now and then. Maya is also not presented as either a saint or a scold, but as a flawed, fierce mother who is always braced for some kind of conflict because getting her son what he needs has often been a struggle.
Much of the pilot is told from the perspective of Ray, who’s younger than J.J. and has continually lived in his shadow. It’s obvious that J.J. is likely to benefit from the services at the new school, but Ray and his sister Dylan (Kyla Kenedy) also probably need more attention than they get from their semi-frazzled parents. It’s a realistically complicated situation in which no one is necessarily wrong, but conflicts are unavoidable.
“Speechless” negotiates all those complexities with a light touch, and actually honors the simmering tensions within the DiMeo family by using them as comic fodder. As the daughter of a disabled person, I can attest that it’s often a situation that requires a well-developed sense of humor; deploying snark and sly sarcasm is sometimes the way you express your anger; at other times, it’s how you hold on to your humanity. “Speechless” briskly explores difficult situations that are also often preposterous, silly or annoying, while firmly retaining its identity as an on-brand, aspirational ABC comedy.
The network is once again to be credited for ace casting, especially when it comes to the younger members of the cast; Fowler and Cook are early standouts. Driver is a bundle of righteous energy as Maya, who is also smart and self-aware enough to know how she comes off and to laugh at herself now and then. John Ross Bowie has the most thankless of roles — the sighing sitcom dad — but he brings real warmth and excellent comic timing to the role of Jimmy DiMeo, the quietly observant anchor of the family.
The well-calibrated performances and the show’s wise, irreverent storytelling made me very keen to see more; though there were a couple aspects of Ray’s story that didn’t quite click, that is a minor complaint. It’s probably most useful to think of “Speechless” not as a comedy about disability, but as a solid sitcom in which a complex human being with a disability resides at the center of the story. But don’t take my word for it; the pilot is online and on the ABC app until Sept. 20, the day before it premieres on air.