ABC's new comedy Speechless shows what it's like to be a family with a disabled child in a way that's never been done on TV before. The series is inspired by creator Scott Silveri's experience growing up with a brother with special needs, and comes from a very real, nuanced place showing the unique but relatable challenges of a special needs family. But like its Wednesday-night network mate Black-ish, it's not a didactic "you need to be more empathetic" show, it's a family ensemble comedy with three-dimensional characters and laugh-out-loud funny jokes that also has social significance.
"The show is funny, first and foremost. We're a half-hour comedy, we're sandwiched between two great comedies, and that's our priority," Speechless star John Ross Bowie tells TVGuide.com. "If we also shed some light and add to the discourse about disability, that's gravy, but our main job is to be a funny show.
"It's interesting, because there's a way to do this show where it's mawkish and sentimental, and there's a way to do it where it's tasteless and awful, and I think we're studiously avoiding both," Bowie says.
That balanced tone is the show's greatest asset. Speechless is a clear-eyed show whose central family is made up of flawed people doing their best. Minnie Driver stars as Maya Dimeo, the mother of Dylan (Kyla Kenedy), Ray (Mason Cook) and J.J. (Micah Fowler), the latter of whom has cerebral palsy. J.J. is nonverbal and confined to a wheelchair, but has normal intelligence. Maya acts as J.J.'s tireless, fearsome advocate, forcing everyone she comes in contact with to treat J.J. with the respect he deserves, or else.
"I really enjoy that Maya says whatever she wants and she doesn't suffer fools," says Driver. The character who says whatever he or she wants is a common one, but Maya is different in that she says whatever not because she doesn't care if she's offensive — which, to be fair, she doesn't care — but because what she has to say is so urgent and important for someone else's well-being that it absolutely has to be said.
Bowie plays Jimmy Dimeo, the more level-headed father who in turn sort of becomes the spokesman for his hurricane of a wife. But they are both fiercely devoted to getting the best for their son, frequently uprooting the family to move to schools with better special education programs, and often after alienating too many people in the town they just left.
It's tough on the other kids — much of the pilot is dedicated to middle child Ray, who is resentful toward his mother for putting J.J.'s needs ahead of his yet again. That tension is real and honest, and Speechless approaches it from a loving place where the family members really try to understand each other.
And, crucially, the show is hilarious. It's irreverent without being crass and has an endearing goofy streak. Plus, it has ABC's trademark sunny, inviting single-camera style put in a less-polished setting than Modern Family or Black-ish — the Dimeos' crappy house is almost Norman Lear-like compared to those other shows' SoCal mansions. It's a perfect addition into the network's solid stable of resonant, funny sitcoms. It has a different but complementary perspective.
Speechless premieres Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 8:30/9:30c on ABC.