One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
ABC’s new fall sitcom, Speechless, knows exactly what kind of show it wants to be from the get-go. It’s here to tell the chaotic, yet endearing stories of the DiMeo family, which includes a special needs teenager with cerebral palsy named JJ (Micah Fowler). But more importantly, it wants to be hilarious and somewhat disarming along the way, no matter which character is on screen.
Weirdly enough, this is one of those rare pilots that lends about the same comedic weight to every main character (and a good deal of the supporting cast, as well). Minnie Driver plays the family’s eccentric mother, Maya, who uproots the family for the sixth time in two years in order to find the “right fit” for JJ. We learn soon enough that she’s truly in search of a place that’s good enough for what she intends for JJ’s normal life, at the expense of middle sibling, Ray (Mason Cook), who gets the majority of the episode’s sympathy.
We get to know the DiMeos mostly through scenes in which they’re getting to know their new home. That includes a nightmarish tour of their decrepit new house in Newport Beach (by the freeway and directly by the train tracks), as well as a new school where it seems much of the show wants to spend its time.
Youngest sister, Dylan (Kyla Kenedy), is a vocal megaphone for the outrageous cringe going on around her. The father, Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), takes the role of upbeat mediator as Maya and Ray butt heads, while also shooting off his own passive aggressive remarks at evening commuters and snobby parking lot competition. And JJ spends most of his time sidestepping the patronizing antics of his teachers, fellow students, and a vocal interpreter who annoys him to no end.
One of the more surprising additions to the cast is Cedric Yarbrough, who plays a school employee named Kenneth who is quick to befriend JJ and serves as comedic foil to Maya. The show is breezy with how its new characters slip into the in-world of Speechless, where we find a heightened PC culture reminiscent of Dean Pelton’s wishful thinking in Community, which this show shares quite a bit of material in terms of joke timing and composition (which is only a compliment). Fortunately, this politically correct school has a compelling reason for its sanctimony, rooted in previous actions of the main characters that serve the show in making it feel lived-in and effortlessly imagined.
This makes the shots at PC culture feel somewhat deserved and wrapped in careful commentary (even irony), not any mean-spirited attempt to make light of JJ’s situation. He’s as aware of his limitations as anyone else, which is why there’s no struggle to accept that he’s as flawed as any other teenager. He makes crude jokes, puts his needs above his brother’s at times, reacts visibly when something strange or embarrassing happens (usually around his mother), and is outright rude to people when he’s unsure how else to respond. This makes Speechless all the more winning when he does make concessions for Ray and the rest of the family in small ways, and it helps that his eventual banter with Yarbrough grounds the whole thing in the main reason we’re here: to laugh.
The best scene of the pilot illustrates all of this beautifully, in which JJ is introduced to his high school class for the first time, though it’s a standing ovation that is quickly diverted when the teacher realizes that JJ, himself, can’t stand. The jokes only escalate from there, and to great effect.
It’s almost alarming how quickly the DiMeos have managed to become one of TV’s most interesting—and hilarious—sitcom families.