Last night’s series premiere of ABC’s new comedy, Speechless, was fantastic. It’s a brilliantly laid-out show, with likeable characters, solid writing, and impeccable acting. Show writer Scott Silveri (who grew up with a brother with special needs) captures the soul of this family – and both the internal & external challenges they face – to a spectacular degree. The dialogue flows beautifully, and really showcases the dynamic between all of the characters.
Micah Fowler’s exquisitely hilarious portrayal of JJ DiMeo, a non-verbal, wheelchair-using teenager with cerebral palsy (CP), challenges the public perception of who a person with a disability is. JJ, while he loves his family, is definitely a teenager. He messes with his younger brother, and definitely knows how to push people’s buttons (and does it, with hilarious accuracy). Fowler, who has CP himself, relies on impeccable facial expressions & purposeful movements to really get his message across when he’s on screen. The life that he brings to the role of JJ speaks volumes – without him ever having to utter a single word (giving “the finger” to two guys who stare at him is a perfect example).
Cedric Yarbrough really manages to bring an endearing fallibility to the role of JJ’s aide, Kenneth, while completely avoiding the “Magical Negro” trope. In an interview with the LA Times leading up to the show’s release, he stated, ““I really wanted to stay away from someone who could be the savior coming to this family. The ‘Bagger Vance’ character who, you know, knows all. I wanted to make sure that this guy doesn’t know much of anything. He’s going to make mistakes.” Well, even though he does make mistakes, Kenneth is not afraid to stand up to JJ’s mom Maya (Driver) in the most poignant & funny ways.
The rest of the DiMeo family are also very well fleshed out. Mom Maya’s charming yet stinging & no-nonsense takedowns of all of the ways she sees JJ’s freedom & normalcy being challenged, while also showing a softer side when addressing her other kids. The dynamic between dad Jimmy (Bowie), & the other kids was also heartwarming, and reminded me of growing up relating to my dad when I was that age. The pair as parents really portray a wonderful sense of caring about their family, while at the same time dealing with the trials of middle-class parenthood. Then there’s the other two kids in the family. Kyla Kenedy as Dylan & her loudmouth antics are surprisingly sweet (even when she’s screaming death threats at a motorist). Mason Cook as Ray, with his awkwardly charming geek personality add a meekness to this brash family that breaks up the over-the-top nature of the comedy in a wonderful way.
This first episode of Speechless did such a great job of portraying a family with, and life as, a special needs child, without relying on sentimentality or using any of the awful disability tropes that usually accompany the subject matter. One of the best parts, in fact, is the way they completely poke fun at the concepts of overdone inclusivity, patronization, and “inspiration porn”. The show does not portray JJ as a stereotype, but just as a regular teen with a regular teen attitude towards his peers & family, his experiences as a person with a disability, and life in general. The themes of family, growth, and dealing with change were a joy to watch.
As a reviewer, writer, actor, and a person with a disability, I love this show, and am SO glad to see it on TV. I highly recommend that everyone check it out Wednesday nights at 8:30pm Eastern Time on ABC, and hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.
5 out of 5 motorized wheelchairs
If you would like to learn more about cerebral palsy, please visit the Cerebral Palsy Foundation’s website.