Speechless (S01E01) “P-I-Pilot”

Review: As if ABC’s comedy lineup wasn’t diverse enough, this season the network adds a show that focuses on a family with a special needs child. With two comedy nights, ABC has some of the best (family) comedies on TV right now and Speechless is a perfect addition to what they already have on the air. It shows that ABC is not afraid to explore unusual and difficult topics, in a very funny way. Speechless is an excellent example of that, considering the situations are mostly comedic while the topics might be difficult to talk about.
Speechless is about JJ DiMeo (Micah Fowler), a 16 year old with cerebral palsy. He’s in a wheelchair, and can’t speak, but in the first minutes this is not the most important subject of the show. It’s more about that he can be a normal teenager, who teases his brother and gives the finger to some guys staring at him. Of course in these first minutes we also see how the family dodges a speeding ticket thanks to JJ and how he communicates with an electronic board, but there is a good balance between showing his disability and showing that he’s a teenager.
JJ’s mother, Maya DiMeo (Minnie Driver), is a strong advocate for her son, and always sticks up for him, trying to give him the best life possible, sometimes forgetting that JJ also has two younger siblings, Ray and Dylan (Mason Cook and Kyla Kenedy). The family’s patriarch, Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) tries to keep the peace in the household and to keep everyone happy.
Keeping the kids happy gets very difficult though when the family has to move again, which means a change of schools for the 6th time in 2 years. JJ and Ray aren’t happy, especially when they see the new house (“the worst house in the best neighborhood”). But when JJ hears that he will get a fulltime speaking aide so that he can go to a regular school, he doesn’t mind the move as much. And Dylan is very positive about the new school, when she hears they have just improved the track field.
Maya is excited about the new school until she sees that it’s not wheelchair friendly at all and also JJ is disappointed by his new ‘voice’. Ray however, completely changes his mind and wants to stay at the new school because he found a girl he can connect with. But because the school insulted and disrespected JJ, Maya makes it very clear that they won’t go back there. Ray is disappointed and mad because once again he feels like the needs of JJ are put before his. But when JJ finds a new voice in the school’s janitor Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough), things turn around for everybody and they decide to stay.
As someone with a disabled brother, this show and this story feel relatable and real to me. My brother is mostly mentally disabled and you cannot compare his disability to JJ’s, but parts of the show will ring true to most families with a special needs child. It’s clear that the show’s creator Scott Silveri used his experience and knowledge about special needs families for the show (Silveri has a brother with special needs).
Maya reminds me of my mom in a certain way. My mom definitely fights for the rights of my brother and, while she doesn’t do it with as much energy and anger as Maya, wants him to have the best life possible.
In families with a special needs child, it is very hard to balance the attention between the kids. Parents sometimes feel like they are not doing enough for their other kids, while the other kids might feel like they don’t get enough attention or are not as important as their disabled sibling. However, a special needs child sometimes needs more attention and care, which makes it difficult for both the parents and the kids.
People often ask me if it bothers me that my brother usually gets more attention from my parents than me, and I’ve always answered that with ‘no’. Partially because he was born when I was 5 so my brother and his disability just gradually became a part of my life and I can’t remember a life without him. The other part of that answer might have to do with myself. I don’t necessarily need a lot of attention, I can do perfectly fine on my own. However when I saw Ray struggle with this, I could really relate to it.
I think this was very well explored in the speech Maya gave Ray: “Yes, JJ gets a lot of my attention, maybe it’s because he needs me and maybe it’s because you’re so damn sure that you don’t. But I hear you Ray, I do. And I love you and if you don’t feel that every minute, then I’m not doing my job properly”. I loved this scene because it was very honest and true.
I think it’s really great that a family like the DiMeos is on TV right now and that most of the show isn’t about the disability itself, but more about how the family deals with the problems, but also the great parts of having/taking care of someone who has a disability. I’m especially very curious to see how the roles of the siblings will be on the show because I think this will be really interesting and relatable to me.
All in all, I think the show had a great start with this first episode. I think it can still improve, but it has a lot of potential. It’s funny, relatable and heartwarming, and has a great cast (how does ABC keep finding perfect child actors??!) and good writing. I’m looking forward to the rest of the season, I will definitely be watching!
Rating: 8/10
Speechless premieres Wednesday September 21st at 8:30/7:30c on ABC. The pilot episode is now available on ABC Go and Hulu.