How ‘Speechless’ Perfectly Balances Authenticity and Humor
When it comes to comedies, ABC has distinguished itself by having one of the most inclusive slate of shows on network TV. Speechless has deservedly gotten a lot of attention for its depiction of a child with cerebral palsy (starring an actor who lives with the disorder in real life). But as important as this sort of representation is, inclusiveness isn’t always enough to sustain a show. Now that Speechless has wrapped its first season (with a second one on the way), more people should be made aware that it’s also one of the funniest comedies on the air.
Thematically, the show covers what it’s like being a caretaker for someone who has a disability (from a parent, sibling, and even an aide’s perspective), but also raises larger questions about identity and what it means to be a part of a family. Comedically, so much hinges on investing in the DeMeo family, and Speechless has been gifted with a great cast, including a surprisingly talented crop of young actors. Speechless frequently reminds me of another family sitcom from a decade ago—Malcom in the Middle—it has a similar authentic voice and knows just when to resist cheesiness, while still finding truth in the most ridiculous situations. And much like Malcolm, Speechless makes great use of the young kids on the show; they frequently allow them to go off on their own and have weird side adventures that branch off from the main plot. (One of the best instances of this is during the Oscars party episode when Ray briefly falls for a girl who self-identifies as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. “That’s my personality, she says. “Like in the movies. Why talk when we can spin?”) Minnie Driver and John Ross Bowie are also fantastic; to continue the Malcom in the Middle analogy, Bowie feels like a more self-aware version of Bryan Cranston’s Hal, only not as excitable; and while Driver’s Maya might appear to be your typical fierce, Type A sitcom mom in the pilot (think Jane Kaczmarek’s Lois, or Julie Bowen’s Claire on Modern Family), she eventually relaxes away from that.
It’s incredibly tough to write about illness in a respectful, legitimate way; that probably goes double when making a comedy. Creator Scott Silveri was inspired to make Speechless because of his own experiences as the parent of a special needs child, and that authenticity shows. Silveri and his team of writers are telling realistic and humorous stories about the numerous challenges families who have children with special needs face, but they aren’t leaning on that as their sole source of comedy.
One of the stealth comic forces of the show’s first season has been Cedric Yarbrough, who plays J.J.’s aide, Kenneth. Last year, we ran an interview with Yarbrough, he expressed that his primary desire was to make people laugh, saying, “We don’t want to be the disability show. We just want people to like the show.” Silveri echoed that sentiment during a panel interview earlier this month, where he said that his goal with Speechless wasn’t to depict disability writ large. “That’s too big of a responsibility for us. I just wanted to talk about this one family. But I remained mindful of the things I did want to depict: us against the world, we’re different, and we’re not going to apologize for it. In fact, we think we’re a little better for it.”
The biggest benefit of having J.J. be the lead of this show and not a background figure (especially when disabled characters have held minor or one-off roles for so long) is that the show gets to explore what it’s like to live with a disability head-on. Speechless has episodes dealing with J.J. finding the line between justifiably using the treatment he receives and taking advantage. It’s a wonderful insight into what it’s like for people who have to deal with these issues in real life. The other characters are constantly made aware of how the world perceives J.J., too. Sometimes, the DeMeos family runs into genuinely prejudiced people; other times, they misjudge a situation since they’ve become so used to stares and comments from people in public). In a recent episode, Ray has a crisis of conscience with having his first kiss with a girl who uses the “R” word. When he gives her the chance to apologize, she dodges by saying, “It’s not my fault in today’s culture people get upset by anything. Should we censor ourselves because some unseen PC ‘they’ might get upset? That seems un-American.” This is exactly the kind of issue that this show is uniquely qualified to tackle — one that’s even more relevant in light of our current administration. The PC argument gets used a lot, not just in comedy, but in everyday conversation so that people don’t have to feel bad about saying whatever they want. Speechless handles these questions with just the right amount of comedy and sensitivity. It doesn’t cross into After School Special territory, but it always finds the right balance. On Speechless, J.J. isn’t some unseen “they.” He’s front-and-center. More networks and creators should take note.