The new ABC sitcom Speechless feels at once familiar (a raucous family headed by a wisecracking mother) and new (one member of the family has cerebral palsy). Centering a show around a special-needs child is a delicate matter, but Speechless tries to steamroll over any misgivings you, the network, and special-needs rights groups may have by hitting the laughs hard and making the child’s mother the focal point of aggression.
Minnie Driver plays Maya DiMeo, wife and mother to three children including J.J., played by Micah Fowler. For the purposes of understanding what many of the jokes are about, you should know that J.J. uses a wheelchair and cannot speak. (Actor Fowler has cerebral palsy, but, unlike J.J., he can speak.) Maya’s husband, played by The Big Bang Theory’s John Ross Bowie, is a calm, puckish type, thus making him a sharp contrast to Maya, who is, to put it kindly, a big personality. Indeed, whether you like Speechless depends largely on whether you like Maya. She is an extremely proactive parent, battling anyone and everyone who she thinks may be insulting or slighting her son. God forbid you should get in her way.
Speechless, created by Scott Silveri, wants to avoids mawkishness and pity so much that it goes way overboard in the other direction, making the audience feel like the cop who declines to chase after Maya when she’s speeding: He finds her so hostile and obnoxious that he says it’s just not worth confronting her. I get what Speechless is trying to do — portray the ways in which some parents feel they must aggressively fight for a child who needs extra attention and a normal amount of respect — but, as we all know, sometimes our ardor to protect and promote our loved ones can turn into messianic self-righteousness, as well as just plain rudeness. Speechless has chosen to push Maya in that direction, and it ain’t a pretty sight.
There’s a telling moment in the pilot when the DiMeos pull their family van into a handicapped parking spot, and a woman (older, uptight, and cranky, of course) rolls down her car window to tell the family their vehicle doesn’t have a handicapped sign. Maya opens the van door to reveal J.J. in his wheelchair, and she glares at the old lady, who we are supposed to think has been properly put in her place. But think about it: This woman was just trying to keep the handicapped space free for those who ought to occupy it; she had no idea she was chastising people with a special-needs child. How could she know? Yet she’s treated as a despicable enemy by Maya. There’s no leeway made for people who may make mistakes around J.J. — in the world of Maya, and Speechless itself, anyone who does anything in the wrong manner should be crushed like a bug.
The show sets up numerous easy targets. Poor Marin Hinkle, an excellent actress (yeah, sure, Two and a Half Men, but remember how great she was in Once and Again?), plays a school principal almost tongue-tied by politically correct doublespeak. (She says “acceptable alternate access” instead of “wheelchair ramp,” or what the incline really is — a “garbage ramp.”) She becomes the focus of Maya’s rage. At one point, Maya asks her, “Are you trash or a person?” Hinkle’s character is presented as such a flustered idiot that she is stumped into silence. If a different kind of sitcom had portrayed a professional woman this way, it would come under attack for treating the woman with such condescension and hostility. But in Speechless, J.J.’s needs trump everything, and every appalling thing Maya does is supposed to be both heroic and a laugh riot.
It’s possible Speechless will become something more than “Maya Against the World”; the premiere sets up an intriguing dynamic between Maya and her other son, Ray (Mason Cook), who feels neglected. Maya’s husband gently chides her: “You fight and fight to make sure J.J. has a normal life; maybe he’s not the only one who deserves that.” This territory is well worth exploring.
Minnie Driver is, of course, a very fine actress whose previous sitcom, About a Boy, was underrated in every sense. Driver does a superb job in selling this new role; it’s probably a star-maker for her. And nestled in between The Goldbergs and Modern Family, Speechless has an excellent chance of becoming a hit for ABC in the tradition of other raucous-household comedies, such as The Middle. I’ll keep watching Speechless to see how it evolves, but right now a little of Maya is very irritating, no matter how noble her intentions.
Speechless airs Wednesday nights at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC.