For all the talk of diversity and representation in TV, there’s one group of people that is often left out of the conversation: those with special needs.
And so when Speechless premieres Wednesday night, it will be yet another milestone in the push for pop-culture diversity. Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy, will be the first special-needs star of a sitcom since Chris Burke played Corky on Life Goes On a quarter of a century ago.
(Funny how, when it comes to social justice and equality on TV, we’ve tended to break ground early, and then abandon the project for decades.)
In its very existence, then, Speechless is noteworthy in the crowded lineup of fall TV shows vying for attention. It also happens to be very, very good.
It is so hard to “say something” meaningful in television—as Speechless does, rendering its title rather cheeky—without patronizing an audience, reducing certain underserved communities to sainted stereotypes, or attempting to titillate viewers’ heartstrings with graphic levels of inspiration porn.
It’s even harder to do all of this and still be funny, a little dangerous, and even irreverent.
Speechless hardly reinvents the humor wheel. And sure, it naturally lends itself to teachable moments that would charge off the cliff into the jagged waters of an Afterschool Special were the tone not handled just so—pulling off a hairpin turn at the edge right before the whole thing drives over.
Fowler plays JJ Dimeo, who communicates with his brother, sister, parents, and the rest of the world using a light pointer and letter and vocabulary board. Minnie Driver is Maya, his mother and his crusader—and our reminder how often those two words are interchangeable.
The opening scene finds Maya speeding the family van to get to breakfast before a coupon expires, with the cops afraid to stop her because of her reputation as a bulldozer who gets what she wants. And what she wants is for JJ to get all the services that should be owed to him as a special needs child, but also all the experiences that should be owed to him as a normal teenager.
As a school janitor who encounters the wrath of Maya later in the episode quips, “I enjoy your Blind Side energy.”
That the dialogue is so punchy—irreverent and sharp, not shying away from being politically incorrect while telling the story of a community often marginalized—and the warmth so palpable beneath it shouldn’t be so surprising. The series boasts Friends alum Scott Silveri as creator and executive producer.
Yet while the dialogue and this family has the chuckling familiarity of six friends in a coffee shop, it also has the resonance of a story and a creative mission that is personal, and therefore that much more powerful. That’s because, for Silveri, it is.
“I came from a family with a brother with special needs, and it’s something that I’ve been wanting to write for a long, long time,” he told reporters this summer at the Television Critics Association press tour.
“It would be easier to do a show about a guy who wins the lottery and buys a whoopee cushion factory, and sure, we can mine jokes from that,” he said. “But this was an attempt to write what I know. And what I know is the challenges, the ups and downs of growing up with a family with a sibling with special needs. I know how it’s the same as other people’s experience, how it’s different from other people’s experience, what’s funny about it.”
While Speechless certainly highlights JJ’s struggles and the lengths Maya must go to ensure the best for him, it’s also about the toll that ceaseless fight takes on a family that is forced to constantly put their own needs and desires aside as Maya searches in vain for the perfect situation for JJ.
The pilot has the Dimeos moving and starting a new school because JJ would be given a full-time aide to speak for him—literally a voice.
But when that voice turns out to be a perky middle-aged woman with the vocal register of a cartoon fairy godmother (the show’s best running joke) and Maya arrives to encounter an accessibility ramp intended for both her son and garbage, she decides to uproot the family again, much to the chagrin of JJ’s brother Ray (Mason Cook), who finally found a school where he fits in.
“I’m not going to apologize for taking care of your brother. He got the right mum,” Maya scolds Ray when he complains. “Yeah,” he responds, spitefully. “He did.”
When Maya feels guilty about the way she’s treated Ray, her husband tells her, in a poignant line that’s punctuated many of the show’s trailers and commercials, “You fight and fight to make sure JJ has a normal life. Maybe he’s not the only one who deserves that.”
Maya can be a lot. In many ways, that’s the point. That’s what it takes for a mother of a child with special needs to be taken seriously. But it also makes for a challenging sitcom lead and performance.
“You know, in my mom, in a lot of moms that I’ve interviewed and spoken to in similar circumstances, it’s hard to turn it off sometimes,” Silveri said. “It’s, like, what does the general do after the war is done?”
Talking about Driver’s performance as Maya, he continued, “And so it takes a special person to be inviting enough to take you on that journey and have it be fun and engaging rather than just, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa.’ And that’s been our experience with her. We’re on board with her journey.”
More challenging, though, is the tone. Those lines about JJ getting the right mum and every child deserving a normal life could be insufferably cornball. Even as delivered in Speechless they’re big plays for the heartstrings. But what makes them tolerable, even necessary, is the way the rest of the show takes the air out of P.C. culture and the idea that we shouldn’t laugh at ourselves, no matter who we are and what challenges we face.
Our tiptoeing around cultural triggers and our aggressive need to flaunt acceptance are mocked when JJ arrives at his new school, which is throwing a fair that night with the theme “inclusivity.” Its mascot, too, was recently changed from a Viking, with its connotation of pillaging and male aggression to the sea slug, which has both male and female genitalia.
When JJ arrives in class, he is greeted by a rapturous standing ovation, and then a panic: “Oh god he can’t stand. The ovation is insensitive, everybody sit down.” He is also implausibly—were the self-congratulatory overcompensation not completely believable—presented with a sign that says “JJ for President.”
“If you just hear the logline of a show with a kid with a disability, it suggests that ‘after school special’-ness. And that’s why we were really vigilant about doing everything we could to subvert that as early as possible in the pilot,” Silveri said.
Silveri and crew weren’t just aware of the existence of the idea of inspiration porn when it comes to portrayals of the disabled community. They were actively avoiding it. “I think there are moments of humanity to it and moments of silliness to it, and we try to move quickly past both,” he said.
While the pilot focuses on finding a voice for JJ, the show doesn’t take on that same mission. Speechless doesn’t set out to be a so-called voice for the disabled, because that would be missing the entire point. The experience of being special needs and loving someone who is special needs isn’t exploited here. It’s illuminated here—and humanized, satirized, and, most importantly, laughed along with.
There’s so much cynicism on TV. It wouldn’t hurt for there to be a little more heart. In that vein, Speechless is truly important. But, more than that, it’s quite fun.