“Speechless” is a sitcom about a teenager and his wacky family who navigate the world of disability with heartfelt humor. Life has taught the DiMeos it’s OK to stand out and make the rules as they go. Scott Silveri wrote the show based on his own experiences growing up with a brother with cerebral palsy. Comedian Zach Anner has a recurring role.
As its third season comes to a close on ABC, the show has been exported to the U.K. via E4. Here are four reasons why “Speechless” needs a Season 4!
1. The Multi-Dimensional Main Character
When I first heard about the show, I was delighted to learn a disabled actor had been cast to play a person with a disability. Who doesn’t love accurate representation?
Still, I wondered how his nonverbal character would come across to mainstream audiences. Thankfully, Micah Fowler is an incredible actor with an enviable repertoire of facial expressions and body language.
JJ DiMeo is sweet and charming. But he is also sassy, sarcastic, cheeky and creative. He gets his point across and he does not hold back. He likes to push boundaries and get his own way. I was worried about a one-dimensional character, but JJ is so much more than that.
He gives his own special hand gesture to those who stare, he would rather coach cute cheerleaders than go to physical therapy, and he likes to mess with his little brother and watch movies. JJ is a typical teen and I couldn’t ask for anything more.
2. The Not-So-Special Siblings
The dynamics of the trio are a joy to watch. JJ isn’t treated differently, because as the eldest child, his family knows no different. This is a mark of respect and love.
It’s all about give and take; there are no double standards. While JJ teases Ray, the latter isn’t afraid to call him out for being a bully.
When JJ learns Ray lied about setting up a disability charity to impress a girl, he rolls over his foot in his power chair. Ray is also forbidden from writing about JJ’s disability for an inspirational essay contest.
It’s a running gag on the show that Ray is something of an old soul who has aged before his time due to the stress of living with his devil-may-care family. However, this becomes a real issue when his parents realize that he is already planning for his brother’s future care.
It’s also amazing to see JJ grapple with finding a unique way to protect his little sister from getting her heart broken for the first time. As Dylan grows up, she struggles to vent her feelings and is shocked by the realization that she might be over-compensating for her brother’s disability with her own athleticism.
These are big issues, but as in life, it’s the little things that matter most. I am a middle child, with an able-bodied brother and sister for whom many things have become second nature. As frustrating as it is to need help with everyday tasks, it is nice to realize your loved ones no longer think twice about it. Whether it be helping with a sugary snack on the move or taking a quick bathroom break during a lightsaber fight, JJ’s siblings put aside their squabbles to be there for him without question.
3. The Imperfect Parents
I loved Maya DiMeo (Minnie Driver) from the moment I met her, because she reminded me so much of my own mother, a fiercely protective advocate who would do anything to make the world a better place for her child. I fell for Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) not long after, when he taught me what it meant to be bulletproof.
As a little kid it’s easy to imagine that your parents have always been Mum and Dad and their lives ought to revolve around you. This show enabled me to step back and see the whole picture.
The show is comedic, but the characters are by no means caricatures. Maya is a warrior, but she is also a worrier. One of the very first episodes deals with the inappropriate guilt she feels for participating in a non-accessible activity. Later on, as JJ prepares for college she must find a purpose again.
On a dads’ night, Jimmy and the other fathers of kids with disabilities open up about how they often feel helpless and keep busy with menial tasks. He’s an architect who gave up the promise of his dream job to provide for his family’s immediate needs. He puts on a brave face, but still struggles with the fact that he played down his wife’s concerns and was out of town when JJ was diagnosed.
Though conventional dates are rare, Jimmy and Maya are fun, flirtatious and fearless. Balancing the needs of their children is tough, but this couple keep the spark alive and show the meaning of unconditional love.
4. The Average Aide
Kenneth (Cedric Yarborough) is alien to the world of disability at first. As a former school gardener, he has to learn on his feet when the DiMeos hire him to be JJ’s voice. As a novice caregiver, at the beginning of the series he knows very little about first aid and even less about person-first language. And yet he and JJ get on like a house on fire, because Kenneth is always honest and willing to keep an open mind, while honoring JJ’s need for personal space and privacy.
Together they learn to trust each other and develop a close friendship. They come to realize it isn’t just a job for Kenneth, who goes above and beyond the call of duty for JJ. In the latest season, the pair struggle with the idea of “moving on” to another assistant, leaving a wonderful circle of support behind.
Kenneth is a hilarious character, with his own his own complexities and backstory. He makes a great addition to the DiMeo family, and an even better wingman. His witty remarks about race serve as a reminder that oppression comes in many forms.
I hope we get another season of “Speechless!”