Three weeks have turned into four, which means it’s time for another three-week roundup review/recap. That was a mouthful for sure, but hardly anything in comparison to what ABC has going on in their new one-cam comedy Speechless. But what does this handicapable-friendly family comedy have to offer? And will it give you something to talk about or will you be left without a word to spare? Boy, the cliches are mounting, so let’s get into this dang review before I die a little more inside.
ABC’s Speechless (#Speechless) is a half-hour sitcom centering around a white nuclear family of five with one twist: their eldest son is confined to a wheelchair and can’t speak for himself. Let me take this opportunity to point out right now that when I viewed the commercials to make my original preview prognosis, I cited how the commercial didn’t touch upon what illness the boy had, but said it looked like MS or something similar to Stephen Hawking’s debilitating disease. After having watched the first three episodes I can now confirm that I still have no idea what the heck this boy has. Maybe I’m not paying attention as well as I usually do when watching these shows, but I don’t remember them mentioning it not once during the pilot, or the other two episodes, what his ailment actually is. Maybe this is not a comedy but a mystery in disguise. Maybe at the end of this season or at the end of the series, he’s going to get up from that chair, tell everybody to kiss it and walk off Keyser Soze-style. I don’t know, but the mystery is killing me.
|The Dimeo Family; Aide on the Far Right|
Next, we have papa Dimeo or Jimmy, played by John Ross Bowie. He plays the role of the overshadowed husband to a T and cracks wise when and where he can. A perfect match in strangeness with Maya, the two as a pair look like a very strange couple together. I would say that with the mother’s neurotic nature dominating the show, he provides a subtle but unique balance to it, even though he still somehow manages to play the cliched oaf of a husband that has been prevalent back since Dick Van Dyke tripped over that ottoman. His love of other people’s garbage, as shown in the third episode, I’m sure will be the subject of many laughs (some forced).
|From Left to Right: Dylan, Ray, JJ|
We have Dylan Dimeo (played by Kyla Kenedy) who is the youngest and the only girl of the family. My initial thoughts of her leaned toward calling her a Tomboy, but I don’t think the writers have fully committed to that path for her yet. She dresses like a non-Tomboy, which makes me think she is Tomboy Lite. So far, her main plot-points have centered around sports twice and learning “the Dimeo way” from her father once. So, she doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time with her mother, but there’s plenty of time in the season for that to develop.
Episode one covers the move as not really being much of a move. They get in the van one day and get out the very same day a few blocks over in a decent neighborhood but in the crappiest house being sold on the block. Jimmy lives by the expression “buy the worst house in a nice neighborhood.” It works as it has no deck (huge hole of nothin’ back there), a cell tower painted to be a tree (great reception) and has a door that constantly falls off the hinges as it leads into the kitchen (in no way a reference to our metaphor). Apparently, it also has no upstairs, though I could have sworn that I saw the architectural makings for stairs. More akin to a rundown witch’s hovel, it’s home! Naturally, Ray hates it. He wanted to stay in their last home (not that it was much better) and be near his friends and the school he had been going to. To be fair to his mom (her idea) this was close to the sixth time they moved within a few years, all to give JJ a better school system. Unfortunately, in focusing on JJ so heavily she’s forgotten that her other two children would like to have a normal childhood, too. Completely ignoring the question of who the heck has that kinda money to move from place to place like that with a family of five even if they’re renting, we find ourselves split between understanding the mom and Ray’s side on this issue. Being the child that he is, and the dad that Jimmy is, the two make a deal to try their best to dissuade Maya from wanting to stay in that house, hoping she’ll find something wrong with the school (she always does) so they get to go back to their old home where Ray has his friends, and Jimmy won’t ever have to deal with packing all their crap and moving it. Yeah, Jimmy’s lazy like that.
The plan seems right on track when the first downer they see is the aide that JJ is given. A woman who looks on the cusp of grandma-dom, she has a very high, chipmunk-squeaky, annoying voice that grates at JJ. Not only does he not like her voice, but she is too goody-two-shoes for him as she won’t tell one of his new teachers and his class to eat a bag of d—uh... uh... I’m not gonna say that on the blog either. Be creative, you can figure it out. That, coupled with the fact that his new class gave him a standing ovation and wanted him to run for class president without even knowing him, pisses him off more than anything. He already doesn’t like the school.
|JJ is NOT Garbage|
To add to that, when his entire family goes to his first day (did I not mention that all of the kids are in high school. It feels like one of them should be in middle school or that they should all be aged down to make the show last longer, but whatevs), Maya loses it when she is greeted by the principal, Dr. Miller (played by Marin Hinkle) who tells her that the only wheelchair ramp they have is in the back of the school... and is actually a garbage ramp... used exclusively for garbage before JJ arrives. “Is my son garbage?” Maya might have used trash, but you get the gist. Back here, in the embarrassing sneak-in garbage entrance of the school is where they meet the gardener/janitor Kenneth, played by Cedric Yarbrough. And here we have our second door hinge. Ha! You thought I forgot about that metaphor, didn’t ya?
Individually, he is a meh! character, along with JJ, but together they are the yin to Maya’s Yang. Though they don’t make the show, they make the show run smoother, less creaky. But I’m jumping ahead of myself.
Kenneth works for the school already and is the cool, outspoken black guy (probably the only one in the little town as he says) and really doesn’t give much of a damn about stuff outside of doing his job well. Still, he maintains a cheery disposition and can combat the crazy that is Maya. When she stands out at the front entrance of the school with a petition to make the school build a front ramp, he flat-out calls her crazy, setting the stage for the tension they’ll have throughout the series. He finds the boy kinda cool but doesn’t do much with that until later in the episode.
|Kenneth and the Principal|
Dylan adjusts to the school accordingly, finding that the sports programs there (they just built a two million dollar track) are decent but have one huge problem: they tell everyone they’re doing great regardless of if they actually are. Super competitive, she can’t stand it, and needs to have her superior athletic skills recognized; she’s a track star.
Meanwhile, the school that Ray was supposed to hate has turned out to be cooler than he anticipated when he finds out that not only do they have an astronomy room but that they have an astronomy club too, which is run (and only has one member) by a cute little Asian girl. Immediate puppy love makes him eager to stay. Not only that, but she invites him out to the carnival near the school that night. Something he really wants to do, his mom shuts him down when they argue about how much they argue and about how much he really wants to give the school a try for a change. But it is still no, which means they’ll move again if they have to and he’ll lose the girl. So, he sneaks out to go to the fair/carnival thing.
Father Dimeo talks to mama and convinces her that she should allow all of her children to have a regular life, so she goes to his room to apologize only to realize that he isn’t there and is at the circus/fair/carnival thing. So the entire family somehow, for some reason ends up going to the family day/circus/fair/carnival thing to look for Ray. There, Ray learns that the girl he likes has an older jock boyfriend, Kenneth meets JJ in the van and helps him to help his brother by announcing that he’ll run for class president (this gives Ray enough time to escape a punishing beating from the jock), and Maya finds and apologizes to her second son. Two deals are struck: they will stay, and cool black guy will be JJ’s new aide.
Episode two focuses on the new aide biz as Kenneth has to get the hang of the whole voice for the voiceless thing. His focus is to make sure that the boy has an authentic high school experience while also feeling heard. The problem is that he has no idea what he’s doing and JJ lives on a fairly strict timeline for his life. He has physical therapy, doctor appointments, etc. It’s actually all a bit suffocating and it’s a wonder how his parents ever got to work in the first place. In fact, I have no idea what it is they do for work, maybe nothing as we come to realize that Jimmy hates having to do any work or cleaning of nearly any kind. Since they’ve made their decision to stay at the new school and the new house, they have to meet their neighbors at some point and Jimmy dreads it. His goal is to make them realize that he and his family are nothing but idiots. His theory, as taught to his daughter who wants desperately to learn, is that people group their neighbors into a few groupings: good neighbors (those borrow-a-cup-of-sugar types), jerk neighbors, and idiot neighbors. Jerk neighbors, as he teaches, are the ones that prank their neighbors with orders of a dozen pizzas like his daughter errantly does. Idiot neighbors are the kind of people who act as if they don’t know any better and maybe they don’t: they leave their garbage cans out too long or don’t mow the lawn when it gets overgrown and weedy. Side note: I’m actually sort of an idiot neighbor as I do both of those things but with good reasons I care not to mention here. But when he nearly lets another neighbor from around the corner take the blame and scolding for the pizza prank that his daughter pulled, they both decide to learn a lesson and go to the good neighbor who they pranked and confess their sins.
Episode three explores how possessive the family is in different ways. With the new house now their home, they have to rush out and clear all their junk from the old house before being locked-out at a certain time (I guess they were renting). Here, we learn that they are disgusting pack-rats who not only hold on to much of their own garbage but go around and steal other people’s garbage. Admittedly, I’ve also done that but only for my garden. I took an old pool tarp to cover my compost pile in the winter. They, however, take it to the next level, taking things like used fish tanks to use as TV stands, bags of garbage, furniture, lamps and etc. Jimmy loves this stuff and it is the family way set by him. Their house is a sty until he has to explain to Ray why it is that way and why he doesn’t feel embarrassed about it. When your son is told that he’ll live a very limited life and won’t be able to do nearly anything he might want to, everything else doesn’t become that big of a concern. It’s heartwarming and sweet and is made even better when he and Ray learn a lesson about stealing and shame when they steal the stuff out on someone’s tree lawn that turned out to be the things a girl was taking out to pack into her car for college dorm life. Even worse, the girl was the big sister of one of the good friend’s of Ray’s crush, and she was there to hear him apologize for stealing her stuff he thought was garbage and muddle through why he’d be stealing her garbage. Dad realizes how the boy felt and decides to clean up the family home so that Ray can actually invite girls and other people to his house now.
As Ray learns a lesson, Dylan struggles to figure out why she does sports so hard. Kenneth poses his psychoanalysis on why she likes to run, hitting her with the existential proposal that she only does it because she is subconsciously overcompensating for her brother who can’t run or perform any physical activity. Therefore, she is his legs. From then on, she wonders if she runs for her brother or does it just because it’s fun. She even poses this same conundrum to the rest of the track girls’ team who find that they, too, only run for reasons other than it being fun.
While Dylan explores the cosmos for answers, JJ makes cool high school friends that invite him to a bonfire that is not handicap-accessible as you have to turn into an American Ninja Warrior or Bear Grylls to get to the place that’s past some cliff or something—Kenneth knows all the details, revealing how too much into high school life he is. When JJ feels excluded Maya jumps to the rescue, but like Superman saving Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel, she botches it royally and gets the bonfire canceled for everyone. Instead, the cool bonfire is replaced with a terrible gymnasium replica with a fake fire and non-bonfire-roasted S’mores. His cool friends then blame him because they don’t want him to feel like he’s being treated unfairly because he’s different. But in the end JJ tells his mom that he secretly wanted her to intervene, and they devise a plan where he gets his friends back when a rival high school football team gets the blame for tying him to one of the field goal posts, even though Maya did that herself. Though things have changed for the better, everything is still the same so long as the family has each other.
What’s my grade? I give it a B. I liked it. I think that it goes well with the rest of the ABC comedies both on Tuesday and Wednesday... and Friday, for that matter. It is partially groundbreaking just because of the JJ character showing para-positive (is that a word? Seems like it should be, right? I’m still thinking loosely about the Paralympics) roles, and his relationship with Kenneth is novel, which breaks up the otherwise run-of-the-mill sitcom family. Take away Jake or even make him able to talk himself as opposed to Kenneth and you have another Malcolm in the Middle or The Middle or Stuck in the Middle or anything else middle-related. But this is good. Minnie Driver is definitely still on fire and extremely comfortable with the role of over-bearing mother after coming off of NBC’s now defunct About A Boy, another sitcom which I also enjoyed but others didn’t. This, I think has a chance of sticking around as ABC has a track record of good family comedy and has loaded up with 10 comedies across three days. However, I don’t think this is a Modern Family-level comedy, if you enjoy that. The one problem I have is the same problem I have with most comedies these days and that is that it is not extremely laugh-out-loud funny. Granted, I’m still the kind of person that enjoys a good laugh-track comedy like those on CBS (unfortunately I could never get into any of them as I never caught any of them from their series premiere), so maybe that partially effects my judgment here, but I also find that the comedy is more smirk-inducing than belly-laugh inspiring. And sometimes Kenneth is too exaggerated, so much so that he feels like a character within a character, but it still works at times, and doesn’t work at other. I think the show is good overall.
What do you think? Have you seen Speechless? If not, do you think you’ll check it out now? If you have, what is your favorite part of the show? Are you excited that they are showing more para-positive individuals on TV? How do you like the family dynamic? And do you think Maya will ever not be overbearing? Let me know in the comments below (hint: click the no comments button if you see no comments).
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Until next time, "Sure, you’ve got a disability, but that ain’t neva meant you wuhdn’t good enough ta be my son.”
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