Thursday, September 1, 2016

Speechless is a Heartwarming and Charming New Family Comedy

(Photo credit: ABC)

In recent years, ABC has shifted the kind of comedies and dramas it’s housed. The network found its dramatic niche in soapy, dramatic, intense Shondaland dramas (and the occasional dabble into genre shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Once Upon A Time). But over the years, it’s struggled to refine its comedy series. In the past few years, it’s tried to be the network for quirky or edgy comedies (Selfie, Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23, Happy Endings, Mixology, Super Fun Night, etc.), to no avail. But what ABC has done in recent years is find its footing in family-centric comedies. Long-running shows like The Middle and Modern Family live on the network, as well as newer series like black-ish and The Goldbergs. Comedies that focus on families seem to work well with the lighter, brighter tone of the network.

And so it comes as no surprise that Speechless — a new family comedy — also finds its place on ABC this year. Speechless is a cute, heartwarming half-hour comedy about a mom named Maya (Minnie Driver) who just wants to provide the best life possible for her son, J.J. (Micah Fowler), her sixteen-year-old son with cerebral palsy. Unfortunately, Maya’s ambitions and her occasionally abrasive personality have led the family to move around... a lot. Her daughter Dylan (Kyla Kenedy) adjusts seemingly well, but her son Ray (Mason Cook) does not. Feeling constantly overlooked in favor of his brother, Ray decides to finally voice his opinion about staying in one place for an extended period of time. The family learns to adjust to staying and even begins sacrificing for one another.

I really enjoyed the pilot of Speechless, even if it isn’t necessarily my favorite pilot in years. I’ll kick it off with the only real flaw this show has at the moment — a need to be more clearly defined. This happens with nearly every single pilot I have seen (ever), so it’s not necessarily a statement on the writing or the acting of the show. Shows need time after pilots to settle and to figure out exactly what they want to be. The only other minor snag at the moment with Speechless is that comedy could use a little bit of refinement. I didn’t wholly laugh at anything in the episode, but the show did earn a few chuckles out of me, and I felt a genuine connection to the characters (which is better than I can say for some of the comedy pilots I've watched over the years). I’m really hopeful that this show will have the lifespan it deserves on ABC to dive deeper into its potential. Because the premise is really quite solid.

What is important, to me, about the series is that it explores the conversation around disability and the unique problems and triumphs that both able-bodied and disabled people face. It presents two extreme responses to disabilities — people who are overtly mocking of them (there’s a scene in the beginning where two young men laugh at J.J.), and the people who try too hard (the school that J.J. attends that is so “tolerant” that it’s absurd). What Speechless presents is this middle ground where human beings should all fall — aware of someone’s disability, but the ability to see them as a person. Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) is the character in the pilot who best exemplifies this. He doesn’t pander to J.J. or treat him as inferior; he’s aware of his disability, but uses the knowledge in order to help him connect — not disconnect — to the teenager. I think that the potential the series has to expand the conversation around how to talk about disabilities is pretty awesome.

Also awesome? There has often been talk of how so many actors in Hollywood who are able-bodied end up playing people with disabilities — and about how that is not true representation of disability. Micah Fowler does have cerebral palsy, and it’s refreshing to see someone on television who is treated with dignity as an actor and a character not in spite of their limitations, but because of who they are. Micah Fowler’s comedy relies on his facial expressions and interactions with other members of the cast. So far, I’m impressed with what I’ve seen from him, and know he will continue to shine as we learn more about who J.J. is.

The other cast members of the show which makes me have hope for the future of this comedy, specifically Minnie Driver. She is always at her best whenever she plays a quick-witted, passionate person. Though Maya is a bit of a departure from About A Boy’s Fiona (that character was more even-tempered and slower to anger than Maya is) in terms of temperament, Driver brings the exact same heart to this character that she brings to all of her characters. Maya might be a bit short-sighted at times when it comes to her drive to care for and protect her family (particularly by often trying to over-care for J.J. while forgetting that Ray also needs her just as much), but she genuinely loves each of her children — and husband, who is played expertly by John Ross Bowie. And, as Maya tells Ray toward the end of the pilot, if she’s not making each member of her family feel loved every single moment of every single day, then she’s not doing her job.

Speechless has the potential to mix the emotional, tough stuff with the fun, lighthearted comedy that is typical of shows on ABC. And the pilot is an example of how the show can learn to balance those two elements in its 22-ish minutes of airtime. If its first episode is any indication, Speechless is on the right track to joining the ranks of black-ish, The Middle, and The Goldbergs as a beloved family comedy.

Pilot Grade: B+


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