ABC continues its admirable campaign to diversify and own the American family comedy with wonderfully tart yet sweet “Speechless,” the story of a “special needs” family that bristles with all sorts of thoughts about the meaning of “special needs.”
Here. that quickly abused and disabused descriptor refers to JJ DiMeo (Micah Fowler), a young man with cerebral palsy. Confined to a wheelchair and unable to vocalize, he shares his thoughts and teenage ’tude via letterboard.
At the center of the bristling is his mother, Maya (Minnie Driver), who, having spent years fighting to explain that her son’s “special needs” are, in fact, his right to personhood, does not have a lot of time for niceties.
“Let’s play a little game I like to call ‘Person or Trash,’” she says to the principal of JJ’s new school when the wheelchair ramp is revealed to be in the back and shared by the janitorial staff.
As her tone makes immediately, heartbreakingly and hysterically clear that this is a game Maya has played many, many times.
But “Speechless” is not just about reflecting the challenges and joys of parenting a child with cerebral palsy; it’s about navigating the minefield of “inclusivity” and the difference between real and symbolic change.
Created by Scott Silveri, whose brother has cerebral palsy, the pilot crackles with one-liner wit and hilarious monologues, many, though not all, delivered by Maya, who all but vibrates with her tangled mess of take-no-prisoner standards and eternal optimism.
That it has taken this long for Driver, a wonderfully elastic comedic performer, to find a leading role in what has the potential to be a long-term series says a lot about the recent history of American television; that she has found it now says just as much about how that is changing.
Maya is one of a growing number of female characters who are allowed to be brash but not bitchy, imperfect but not pitiable, strong but not controlling.
Well, maybe a little controlling. In the firm belief that there is a perfect school for JJ — this one, in Newport Beach, has promised a full-time aide — Maya has moved her family innumerable times, only to be inevitably disappointed.
Which her middle child Ray (an equally well-cast Mason Cook) quickly points out. While his younger sister, Dylan (Kyla Kenedy), is happy to move for a high school with a million-dollar track, Ray has had enough change. He loves JJ, with whom he shares an age-typical, barb-exchanging bond, but he is tired of moving. Moreover, he’s beginning to believe that this is a quest with no end.
His father, Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), counsels patience — if this doesn’t work out, they can move back to their old place. And, as the trash/wheelchair ramp and overly PC attitudes of the staff appear to indicate, it won’t.
Meanwhile, JJ continues his own battle — to be accepted as his own irritable self rather than seen as a piece of furniture or elevated to the role of saint. Even his mother seems, at times, to forget he is a person, not a cause.
But as Maya goes full throttle into another signature rant, she is brought up short by Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough), the janitor she is abusing. “I enjoy your ‘Blind Side’ energy,” he says, before pointing out the limits of her own worldview.
The ongoing “Blind Side” joke goes far in diminishing some potentially troublesome “Driving Miss Daisy” overtones as Maya and Kenneth circle each other, and Yarbrough is a perfect comedic match for Driver.
But then the entire cast is strong, separately and together. The fact that Fowler, like his character, has cerebral palsy (albeit a milder version) no doubt adds insight to all the performances, but the most remarkable thing about “Speechless” is that JJ is not the center of the family or the show.
He’s just a very important part, like everyone else.
When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language)