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'Speechless' Wants to Say Something
September 21, 2016  | By David Hinckley

If you’re looking for a new conventional sitcom, ABC’s Speechless is another place not to turn.

Premiering Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET, Speechless revolves around a pushy Mom and a son with cerebral palsy, which aren’t descriptions you hear all the time in the same sentence with “sitcom.”

Minnie Driver plays Maya DiMeo, whose mission is getting her son J.J. (Micah Fowler) everything that will make his difficult life as enjoyable as possible.

It’s important to stress upfront that Fowler, who has cerebral palsy himself, doesn’t play J.J. as a victim. He’s frustrated sometimes, like everyone else, but he has a clear perspective and a sense of humor.

He’s in a wheelchair. He communicates much of the time with a screen where he spells out what he wants to say. That’s just how it works. Now can we please get on to something more interesting?

Maya seems to understand all that, and she wants everyone else to know it, too. But to do that, she’s convinced she needs to get J.J. into a school where he’s accommodated as a routine matter of course, not as a sympathy case.

So she keeps moving the family around, even though they can’t really afford it. Her husband Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) goes along, but as the show opens it’s starting to wear thin on the other kids, athletic daughter Dylan (Kyla Kenedy) and precocious Ray (Mason Cook).

They’re all 100% behind J.J. They just have their “what about me?” moments.

In the larger picture, there are two specific triggers for the sitcom portion of our program.

The first is Maya moving the family, again, to an upscale community where they really can’t afford to live.

For J.J., she says, they have to find a way. That way will be strewn, we can already see, with culture clashes and a good deal of finessing – interspersed, of course, with reminders about Maya’s constant vigilance over the school system.

When she discovers the handicapped ramp to the school is also the delivery entrance in the back, for instance, she almost reconvenes the Geneva Convention to get some changes.

The second trigger comes when Maya discovers that a maintenance worker at the school, Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough), seems to have tuned in to J.J.’s wavelength. Including his sense of humor.

J.J. can really use a full-time aide to translate what he’s saying and help him with some of the physical logistics.

Unsurprisingly, previous aides have rarely met Maya’s standards. So it looks like Kenneth may be offered the gig, which could create one of the best odd couples on TV this season.

How well Speechless will work as a sitcom is a little hard to say. As the plotline suggests, serious issues are at play here, and resolving them isn’t always comfortable, or inherently amusing.

On the other side, Driver and the cast seem adept at gliding between serious and amusing moments, some of them intentional.

We also like all the characters, so their sprinkling of victories makes us feel good, too.

Fowler says that his real goal for Speechless is to have viewers eventually see him as just another ensemble player in a comedy, not as the kid in the wheelchair.

Now that’s ambitious. If he and Speechless take us even a little in that direction, they will have done quite well.

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