speechless cast

One of the most memorable points in ABC's past was its weekly block of audience-pleasing family comedies that was TGIF, and all these years later, the network is still largely known for using the family dynamic to bring the hilarity. As it's gone with Black-ish and The Goldbergs before it, the new comedy Speechless covers fresh ground in bringing out the laughs, boasting not only a pitch-perfect cast but also a rare focus on the disabled community. And Speechless isn't using kid gloves with the subject, either.

Meet the neighborhood-hopping DiMeo family, which revolves largely around teenager J.J., who has cerebral palsy and "speaks" using a device on his wheelchair that requires a translator aide. (Now you get the show's name, right?) While the biggest name in the cast isn't relative newcomer Micah Fowler - who has a less serious diagnosis than J.J. - he is the most noteworthy presence, given how often TV shows choose to go with nondisabled actors for those roles. What makes Speechless even better than expected is that J.J. isn't a coddled sponge for empathy, as he exhibits much of the same behavior as all snark-driven teenagers, and the pointed writing is able to take aim at a segment of society that entertainment is often too nervous to touch.

Leading the charge for J.J. and the rest of the wheelchair-bound population (among other groups) is his mother Maya, played with effortless ferocity by Minnie Driver, who returns to network TV following About a Boy's awkwardly slow cancellation. Speechless is all the better for it, as Driver embodies everything that Maya is supposed to, with a confidence that borders on arrogance, but still hanging onto the thinnest sliver of humility that allows her to sometimes realize the error of her ways. It is Maya that relocates her family to a more upscale neighborhood, and it is Maya that aims to make them fit in, especially J.J., no matter what.

As you might have imagined, the errors of Maya's ways are indeed tied to J.J.'s path in life, and they come in two major forms. One involves Maya assuming anyone and everyone is berating or dismissive of the disabled community - the scene between her and J.J.'s eventual aide Kenneth, played by Reno 911's Cedric Yarbrough, is a classic lesson in perspective - and the other sees her understanding that her attending to J.J. means she's neglecting the rest of her family. But because she's so strong-willed, everyone tiptoes across eggshells around her, especially those at J.J.'s new school, where Two and a Half Men's Marin Hinkle gets to shine.

speechless season 1

Speaking of those other family members, The Big Bang Theory's John Ross Bowie stars as the happy-to-do-whatever husband Jimmy, and Bowie is charming in the easy-going role where other actors could be grating. Young standout Mason Cook (who was nominated for a Daytime Emmy last year) is the intelligent and slightly neurotic son Ray, who comes across as a normal, if slightly awkward, kid rather than someone reading from a script. And then there's former Walking Dead actress Kyla Kenedy as the athletic daughter who has all of her mother's drive and spunk.

Speechless is the creation of Scott Silveri, who spent a good portion of his career writing and producing on Friends before going on to create Joey, Perfect Couples and Go On. None of those comedies were anywhere near as popular as Friends, and it's very likely Speechless won't attain that honor either, but this is another solid network comedy from the network that's arguably doing it best. (Just talking broadcast here.) Barring some giant catastrophe, Speechless could be a comedy we're laughing with for years to come.

With sharp and hilarious writing that brings the jokes even when there's a moral being delivered, Speechless will hopefully send a message loud and clear that disabled actors and characters are just as different and deserving of attention as anyone else. That said, Speechless thankfully doesn't appear as if it will use that angle solely as a crutch, and the struggles of the DiMeo family still come across as universal, even when we're chuckling too hard to sympathize properly.

8 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed rating

Speechless will make its assertive debut on the diversity-driven ABC on Wednesday, September 21, at 7:30 p.m. ET. To see when all the other great new shows are coming, head over to our fall TV schedule.

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