Speechless on ABC breaks new ground as a show with one of its main characters being disabled and the format being a 30-minute comedy. That’s right a comedy. And it is tasteful and touching, centering on a family trying to adjust to a big move to a new community who in turn is trying to do their politically correct best at welcoming them with open arms.
There have been shows in the past that have had disabled characters (most notably Life Goes On with the character Corky), but the genre is more often than not drama, heartfelt, with only a touch of humor, but usually always with a lesson at the end. Speechless’ aim is to be funny. It’s goal is to make you laugh, hit you in your funny bone, not aim at the heart. And while we are sure they aim to teach us all a little about these unique circumstances, the humor centers on the absurdity of those around them; from the students that are “inspired” by the disabled child, even though they do not even know him, or the social service people, administrators and teachers that try too hard. It pokes fun at the overly politically-correct society we live in, that sometimes does more to marginalize disabled youth, in that they try too hard.
Families with disabled children have reacted positively to Speechless, as have the reviewers for the show, given them the levity they have craved. Speechless’ main character JJ who has cerebral palsy and is restricted to a motorized wheelchair brings a character to life that has rarely been seen on television. Speechless’ creator Scott Silveri channels his own life story of growing up with a sibling with disabilities to bring a realism and humor to the show. It stars Minnie Driver, John Ross Bowie, and Cedric Yarbrough.
The performances are strong, with exceptional credit to the children – Micah Fowler as JJ, Kyla Kennedy as Dylan and Mason Cook as Ray. Also, the characters of Mr. Powers (Jonathan Slavin), and Dr. Miller (Marin Hinkle) are two reasons to tune in each week. More reasons to watch the show is the developing friendship between JJ and Cedric’s character Kenny, but the powerful acting chops brought by Mason Cook. He’s funny and earnest, and it will be interesting to see how the show progresses.
The script and screen version were definitely close in this episode. We noted several punch-ups with the jokes, and the performances really brought the characters to life. Minnie Driver is really good as Maya, the overbearing, protective mother, but we hope they can balance out that by giving the father John Bowie’s Jimmy more to do. With Cedric’s strong improvisational background, we really hope he breaks through in the upcoming episodes.
Disabled characters are fairly under represented on television [remember RJ Mitte in Breaking Bad, and Stevie, the kid in the wheelchair in Malcolm in the Middle, or Drake on Degrassi (does he count?)] Speechless runs the risk of being a very niche show. The casting is strong, the writing is decent, but does this comedy have legs? Apologies for the play on words, but in our Designated Survivor episode Alex asked the same thing, and when recording this episode that catch phrase slipped out. But hey, if Speechless taught us anything, we should all relax and take a joke.
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Script vs. Screen Grading:
Alex: Script B / Screen B
Jason: Script B / Screen B-