100-Character Breakdown: An empathetic, funny, and well-realized comedy about a family with a son who has special needs.
Wednesdays. Starting at 8:30 ET/7:30 CT on Sept. 21.
The family sitcom isn’t exactly a unique genre, but newcomer Speechless shouldn’t have much trouble setting itself apart. This comedy features a family of five, including J.J. DiMeo (Micah Fowler), who has cerebral palsy.
Bonus: Like his character, Fowler has cerebral palsy. Among an industry where some cisgender actors are playing transgender characters and able-bodied actors are playing characters with disabilities, it’s always an important plus to have an actor who understands the life their character lives. And even better, creator Scott Silveri grew up alongside a brother with special needs. Altogether, this is the right team for the right project.
At the start of the series, the DiMeo’s are moving into a more upscale town in an effort to better provide for J.J. But this isn’t a perfect plan. One of the ways Speechless most excels in the pilot is how it explores how having a child with special needs impacts the entire family. Ray (Mason Cook), the middle child, feels neglected. Speechless touches on this issue in a genuine way. And the actors do well in bringing this story to life.
It’s Minnie Driver, however, who leads the cast. She plays mother Maya DiMeo, who is aggressively protective over her kids. She wants to fight for her kids, whatever the cost, and she doesn’t care if anyone thinks she’s doing too much. Driver truly excels in the role. And father Jimmy DiMeo (John Ross Bowie) balances her out: he cares for his kids as much as Maya does, he’s just more levelheaded about it.
While the pilot focuses on J.J. and Ray much more than Dylan (Kyla Kenedy), all three are well-portrayed by episode’s end. Ray thinks critically about decisions and is more responsible than most kids his age. Dylan is an athlete who knows what she wants and will do what she can to get it. J.J. is nonverbal, and Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) acts as his aide, his “voice.” Even though they don’t interact much until the end of the pilot, J.J. and Kenneth have a fun chemistry that easily brings out their personalities.
Altogether, the new sitcom is one I don’t hesitate to recommend. The pilot of Speechless is mindful of its responsibility as a show, providing a story that provokes both empathy and laughter. Rather than coming across as preachy, it focuses on being genuine. The show succeeds in reaching a balance.
More than anything, this show is about the family. It’s a family sitcom, yes, but with its cast of characters, it’s one that provides the laughs and originality a comedy needs.
Watch the pilot at 8:30 ET/7:30 CT Wednesday on ABC.