Speechless is a clever sitcom driven by brilliant writing and acting. Amazingly, in 2019 it was ABC’s lowest rated show. Filled with a cast of characters viewers can truly care about, perhaps even want to hang out with, its failure leaves me utterly, wait for it, speechless.
At the center of Speechless we find the DiMeo family. Maya (played by Minnie Driver) is a superstar special-needs mom who is constantly on the lookout for the perfect school environment for J.J., her 16-year-old son. J.J.’s cerebral palsy relegates him to an electric wheelchair and requires him to communicate by pointing a laser at a word/letter board. He is intelligent, happy and generally a typical 16-year-old.
At the start of Season 1 the family moves into a new house (something they do every year) and J.J. undertakes his first experience with mainstream high school. Really, all he wants is to experience the same things as most teens. Maya is, shall we say, rather intense in her efforts to get the best of everything for J.J. and most people are somewhat scared of her. But persistence produces results and J.J. soon has a full-time aide, Kenneth, who goes to classes with him, speaks for him and helps him with physical tasks. Kenneth and J.J. soon form a tight bond that is unique in the annals of sitcoms.
The household is rounded out by husband Jimmy, an airport baggage handler who doesn’t really care what anyone thinks of him; Ray, the middle child, a worrier and realist who just wants a girlfriend; and Ray’s younger sister, Dylan, a competitive runner who has little time for nonsense unless it involves pranking Ray. They make up a close-knit family and although the others feel neglected at times, everyone is focused on providing J.J. with whatever he needs.
One of the show’s main sources of tension is J.J.’s desire for independence versus Maya’s need to orchestrate his life. She has spent 16 years fighting for J.J., trying to make things easier for him. Now in high school he’s asking for opportunities to go to parties and school dances, play sled hockey and go to summer camp. Maya, understandably, has a hard time letting go. But Kenneth recognizes J.J.’s needs and desires and is an excellent advocate, which in turn leads to tension between Maya and Kenneth.
Sibling subplots center around Ray’s quest for a girlfriend and Dylan’s insatiable need to win. Another recurring plot point is the family’s general messiness and lack of yard care. J.J. takes a lot of everyone’s energy and little is left for household chores. The DiMeos are fine with this, but neighbors do not always share their enthusiasm. Perhaps my favorite episode is “T-h-a Thanksgiving”. The family is supposed to visit Jimmy’s brother but don’t want to because, well, those relatives are horrible. The brother always humble-brags about his wealth and success; his wife cries at the drop of a hat; her mother performs weird semi-lap dances for J.J.; and their son says a single catch phrase each year and nothing else; So the DiMeos pretend that J.J. is sick and cancel the visit. However, the relatives decide to visit the DiMeos instead. As they continue to plan ways to avoid the unwanted gathering, Maya comes up with a brilliant idea, turning the relatives annoying habits into a game. Every time the wife cries Maya gets a point, when the brother brags Jimmy gets a point, and so on. This is a unique perspective on coping with difficult family interactions.
If you like sharp, clever writing, be sure to check out Speechless. It’s truly a superior and unusual show, well worth the price of admission. And please remember: no helmet, no hockey.