TV Show Review: ‘Speechless’
By Rev. Jason Forbes
Jericho Road Disability Advocate
‘Speechless’ is one of the sitcoms which came out on American TV in 2016. The main character is a 16 year old boy with severe levels of cerebral palsy who is also non-verbal – hence the name of the show. ‘Speechless’ was created by Scott Silveri (creator of ‘Friends’) who grew up with a sibling with special needs. While Silveri didn’t set out to raise awareness of people with disabilities and their families, he was concerned to accurately represent what life is like for these people, yet to do so in a comedic way. The lead actor, Micah Fowler playing JJ, does have cerebral palsy, and brings his own life’s insight and wit to the show.
The show isn’t inspiration porn, a phrase coined by Stellar Young. Nor is it a show that sets out to gain people’s sympathy. In fact, paradoxically, the show is just as much about disability as it isn’t. It is about a teenager growing up with all the issues any other teenager has who just happens to have a disability. The everydayness of disability is brought out by side plots following the lives of other characters. So ‘Speechless’ can’t just be thought of as the “wheelchair show” or the “disability show”. It’s so much more. The full dynamics of the show are brought out by the other characters.
Maya DiMeo (played by Minnie Driver) is a disability activist mother who wants JJ to have a life as normal as possible. She is the self-appointed expert on JJ who professes to know JJ better than he knows himself. Yet, for all her good intentions, her plans occasionally backfire creating more issues for JJ.
Jimmy DiMeo (played by John Ross Bowie, best known for his character Barry Kripke in ‘The Big Bang Theory’) is a pacifist dad just trying to get through each day. His strategy in life is to be perceived as an idiot so they’ll be left alone by others to do what they need to do.
Brother to JJ, Ray DiMeo (played by Mason Cook), is the brains of the family, but feels the tension of living in JJ’s shadow as JJ’s needs are put before his.
Sister to JJ, Dylan DiMeo (played by Kyla Kennedy), is a no nonsense girl trying to figure out life between the DiMeo way, and her own way.
Then there’s Dr. Miller (played by Marin Hinkle) and her school, who strive to be all inclusive, and yet haven’t a clue about disabilities.
Finally there’s JJ’s aide Kenneth (played by Cedric Yarbrough) who, as the former school gardener, is handpicked by JJ to be his carer. Despite not having any experience caring for someone with a disability, his level of empathy allows a bond to develop between him and JJ.
Between these array of characters, tensions and issues arise which are common to the experience of people with disabilities. On one level, this makes for some very funny TV. A key element of comedy is something unexpected, and with most people not having thought about these issues, there’s plenty in the show that’s unexpected. At another level, it does bring the issues that many people with disabilities experience on a daily basis to the consciousness of viewers, and this is be applauded.
With this in mind, a lot of the issues are exaggerated, and could be taken as something it’s not. For example, the opening scenes of the first episode shows Maya speeding through the streets in the family mini-van to take advantage of a discounted breakfast coupon. A police officer clocks her speed and is about to pursue when his partner turns the siren back off and says, “No! Not her. Life’s too short!” This could be taken as portraying disability as a license to break the law. But it’s not. The truth is, with any activist who is extremely passionate about their cause, sometimes you just want to avoid them by any means. What’s being captured here is the relentless passion Maya has for JJ and the rest of her family. Disability can be a life of battles that can make it hard to know when to stop fighting.
Yet at the same time, ’Speechless’ does not portray any of its main characters as having the moral high ground. Not even JJ as he isn’t above using his disability to achieve his own ends – such as keeping Kenneth distracted at a party while he gets drunk! Yet, at the same time, he uses the gullibility of the masses for the benefit of those close to him. He plays on the ‘inspirational status’, which has been imposed on him, and announces he’s running for the presidency of the student council from a platform in a bid to distract some bullies, saving Ray from a certain beating. Given the extent of JJ’s disablement, it demonstrates how empowered people with disabilities can be given the right supports.
Neither does ‘Speechless’ overlook issues that also occur with other members of the family. For instance, Ray had just expressed his frustration with their whole lives revolve around meeting JJ’s needs. Later, a bighty line comes from Jimmy to Maya, “You fight and fight for JJ to have a normal life. Maybe he’s not the only one who deserves that.”
The only piece of criticism I have of the TV series is I doubt if anyone can communicate that quickly and efficiently with a communication board. I have seen and conversed with people who use communication boards. It’s not that quick! But this is to be nitpicky over what is a brilliant TV show. Besides, given the format of the show, some artistic license is probably appropriate.
I have been thoroughly enjoying Season 1. It is raising all the social issues that come with JJ’s type of disability, and it does so in a genuinely funny and entertaining way. The acting, story lines, and directing are just as good as the best sitcoms that have been produced. I certainly hope there’s more shows like this to come, and would recommend the show to anyone.
Channel 11 Saturday, 11:20-11:50pm
iTunes: Season 1 (20 episodes) $29.99 (SD) or $2.99 per episode.