I Am Speechless!

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Good Place

Finally, the ultimate philosophical questions surrounding life and death have been answered. In a sitcom. Called The Good Place.

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The premise is a little difficult to explain without getting into multiple spoilers, but here we go.

There is an afterlife! When people die they either go to the Good Place or the Bad Place, depending on how they behaved while alive. The show focuses on four people who die at roughly the same time and are thrust together in the Good Place in a neighborhood designed by an eternal (or nearly-eternal) being named Michael. Michael is sort of like a god in the neighborhood, able to help people, fix problems and create heavenly things such as frozen yogurt restaurants.

There is a “but”.

But Eleanor (the main character) realizes she doesn’t belong in the Good Place. She was, in fact, a horrible human being while alive. Thus, Eleanor assumes there’s been some sort of clerical error that saved her from eternal punishment. And, wanting to remain in the Good Place, she tries to cover up this mistake. To her credit, Eleanor does try to make up for previous behaviors by studying ethics with Chidi (a professor of ethics while alive), who is her soulmate in the Good Place. But it becomes apparent that covering up her past is not going to be easy.

Other characters include another pair of soulmates, Tahani, a rich socialite while alive, and Jianyu, a silent Taiwanese monk, who live in a fantastic mansion next to Eleanor and Chidi’s tiny, clown-themed house. And let us not forget Janet, a sort of supercomputer in human form, who knows literally everything and is able to fill all the desires of the neighborhood’s inhabitants (such as providing frozen yogurt).

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This is the premise, more or less, at the beginning of the first season. But it’s important to remember one thing about The Good Place: Nothing is what it seems to be. In fact, viewers’ expectations are constantly turned upside down over teakettle. By the end of season 1, the above description is highly inaccurate and the show reboots, so to speak, in an entirely different direction. And this is one of the strengths of the show, its willingness to explore entirely new circumstances, essentially trashing everything that has already occurred. In a way, this aspect of The Good Place is similar to the premise of Groundhog Day, with characters reliving the same or similar situations with different outcomes. This device provides a level of freshness that is seldom found on television.

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Later seasons are impossible to describe without giving away the many twists that make The Good Place such a refreshing show. Suffice to say, a variety of permutations of the original plot find their way into the afterlife, creating much humor along the way.

The fourth and final season of the show is currently airing on network TV, meaning there will only be 50 or so episodes of the show in total. Higher quality often means fewer episodes, which means viewers will have to find other innovative programming. So take advantage of this excellent program while you can. The writing, acting, plot twists and explanations of the afterlife are superlative. As a young British prime minister once said, “Hey, that’s my donut!”

LA To Vegas

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It’s no secret that I’m always on the lookout for an entertaining new comedy. Thankfully, the quality of new television programs is higher than ever before. However, the flip side of this is that many sitcoms now have a mere 10-16 episodes per season rather than the classic 26. So if you’re a binge watcher, it doesn’t take too long to get through an entire season. Which creates a need for more high quality programs.

Fortunately, funny people are indeed filling this need. My discovery this week is LA to Vegas, a Fox sitcom that ran only for a single season. It’s not the best or the brightest of shining stars, but the premise is familiar yet unusual.

Each episode begins with the statement that many people fly regularly from LA to Vegas over the weekend. This leads us to Jackpot Airlines, a low-budget outfit that is based in Vegas and to a sitcom standby, the workplace comedy. The workplace in this case is a small aircraft with a crew of four. Rounding out the cast are three regulars on the flight: a gambler, a stripper and a long-distance dad. Additional plot material is drawn from other passengers who are not recurring characters.

In a way, this premise is not much different from your typical workplace sitcom. There are the staff members who we see each episode and there are customers who appear only in a single episode. But the feel is unique, moving from LA to Vegas, sometimes being in an airport, sometimes in a strip club for a children’s birthday party. The revolving cast of characters creates a wide variety of comedic situations and the fact that Vegas is the destination means, well, anything goes.

In the greater scheme of things, I would probably not rate LA to Vegas in the top tier of comedies. However, the jokes are clever, the actors are talented and the situations are amusing. All in all, not a bad way to spend a binge day.

Sadly, the show ran for a mere 15 episodes, as has been the case with many recent highly-entertaining comedies. So the crew and passengers will remain trapped in this small yet amusing world until time immemorial…

But I digress.

With the wide array of platforms currently creating programming it’s hard to keep up with what’s out there, so keep your eyes peeled for new TV shows at Everett Public Library. And please, remember to return your seats to an upright position.