Minnie Driver didn’t waste a lot of time following the demise of About a Boy, which was actually a fun show, but never quite got rolling in the audience acquisition department. She’s back in the role of overprotective mother, but that definitely comes with a new angle in Speechless.
Maya DiMeo (Driver) has a son with cerebral palsy (JJ DiMeo – Micah Fowler), and it’s clear that it has become her life’s mission to champion him in every possible way. As the show opens, her family is moving yet again, because yet another school hasn’t met her standards, and there’s only so much you can change within the system, and it can only happen so fast, no matter how much noise you make.
Make no mistake, Maya makes noise. The latest school she’s targeted had a staff meeting specifically about her arrival.
While Maya rages against the machine, clearly with an attitude and disposition of someone who has banged their head against many a wall, the rest of the DiMeo family must carefully assess what it means for them to ride the wave.
This appears mostly, for now, by way of slightly younger son, Ray (Mason Cook), and his struggle with having to move six times every year, and not quite getting an equal measure of attention. As soon as Ray actually finds something, and someone, to like about this new school, Maya throws out the idea that this might have been a mistake, and maybe they should move right back where they were.
Dad, Jimmy DiMeo (John Ross Bowie), tries to keep things together, and (we imagine frequently) talks Ray down from escalating his protests. His is a refreshingly charming perspective of being resigned to the tornado you’re tied to, without offering up any negative attachment to that idea.
It’s an almost frantic show, largely in an effort to keep up with Maya, and the “jokes,” and banter come at you at a pace that leaves you with the possibility of missing things. But, this is a show that has to hook you into the family as well, and when there isn’t something right in front of us to crusade against, it puts on the brakes.
Speechless is a show that, more than any I’ve seen in quite a while, wants its family as a whole to also be a character, and it almost bizarrely nails the idea. It’s a show with too much going on, but it pulls it off anyway. Within the establishment of the pilot, it relies too heavily on easy gags (like the old woman who complains about the lack of a wheelchair parking sticker), but it also seems to assuage your fears that such are going to be integral in the future. That bit with the parking incident feels like something that might be part of a reel of post-show bites as the credits roll, or part of a marketing-only package. It doesn’t quite fit into the show as more than the weaving together of gags. It’s too shticky, but I think the show knows it.
A show about someone with special needs, and their struggle to get the education, and general treatment, they deserve is a tricky dance, especially when we’re making a comedy that is going to poke fun at the system, ludicrous PC efforts and attitudes, and at times even those fighting the system. It has a lot of things going for it that help it land right on the head of that pin that keeps it from becoming boring, insulting, or just plain silly, but none of them are worth as much as the writing that gives us JJ as simply an absolutely normal, richly-defined person.
It certainly doesn’t hurt anything that the show gets so many things right. Bowie has to work a difficult brand of delivery, and he will hopefully impress even those who are already fans. Driver has her own tightrope to walk, because her character could go wrong a thousand times in every episode, and simply become the person the rest of the world sees, which is really annoying.
Even the, for now, smaller roles contribute much more than you might have hoped off the script alone. Cedric Yarbrough‘s matter-of-fact janitor, who will ultimately find a closer connection to the family, is an almost anti-Maya, and Yarbrough wrangles the character into submission to make him just what this family may need. Even Jonathan Slavin, as the teacher who is the face of PC effort gone horribly out of control, gives us a great entry into the world of struggling against even those who think they’re helping you with your struggle. Slavin’s Mr. Powers giving the show some of its best moments for JJ to work with, mostly of the, “Wait. What’s happening now?” variety.
None of it would mean anything without the writing behind JJ, and this has the feel of a script that was meticulously reevaluated over and over to make sure that he was exactly the character we wanted. Other characters may have a line or two that seem off, or a response that didn’t come across exactly as planned, but JJ isn’t open for miscues or missed deliveries.
The show is a lot of fun, and has a lot of laughs, which will hopefully pull you in, but you’ll stay for the family, and the show’s effort. If nothing else, the unspoken, absent-minded way in which Jimmy and Maya treat JJ no differently, even making jokes at his expense, drives the heart of the show, and propels the comedy there is to a higher level.
Maya DiMeo is a mom on a mission who will do anything for her husband, Jimmy, and kids Ray, Dylan, and J.J., her eldest son with cerebral palsy. As Maya fights injustices both real and imagined, the family works to make a new home for themselves and searches for just the right person to help give J.J. his “voice,” on “Speechless,” premiering WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21 (8:30-9:00 p.m. EDT), on the ABC Television Network.“Speechless” stars Minnie Driver (“About a Boy,” “The Riches,” “Good Will Hunting”) as Maya DiMeo, John Ross Bowie (“The Big Bang Theory”) as Jimmy DiMeo, Mason Cook as Ray DiMeo, Micah Fowler as J.J. DiMeo, Kyla Kenedy as Dylan DiMeo and Cedric Yarbrough as Kenneth.Scott Silveri (“Friends”) writes and is executive producer of the show, along with “Fresh Off the Boat”‘s Jake Kasdan and Melvin Mar. The series is from Twentieth Century Fox Television and ABC Studios.