Take Me to the Pilots '16: ABC's 'Speechless'

SPEECHLESS -Publicity-H 2016
Kevin Foley/ABC

[I'll remind you at the top of every single one of these: These entries are not reviews. They're gut reactions to not-for-air pilots that could change in big and small ways between now and September or October or midseason. Full reviews will come then. They'll be longer. And more carefully considered. The opinions may even change. Who knows?]

Show: Speechless (ABC)
The Pitch: "From the network that brings you TV's good family comedies, another good family comedy, one that totally isn't based on the Michael Keaton/Geena Davis movie from 1994."
Quick Response: ABC just knows what it's doing in this terrain, and Speechless immediately takes a similar-but-distinctive position within the network's family comedy lineup, breaking new ground with treatment of disabilities. Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy, plays J.J., the family's oldest son, and it's interesting to watch how creator Scott Silveri uses the character to change the show's comedic rhythms. J.J. has to scramble to select words on an elaborate board and then his words are often repeated by other characters, which force interesting new pacing choices, choices that are still being refined but already yield some amusement. The show is about people and groups outside the family condescending to J.J., but the show doesn't condescend at all and already Speechless seems able to treat the unique piece of its subject matter in a way that's irreverent but respectful and that really does change all of the core family interplay in interesting ways. Minnie Driver, welcomely getting to remain British, instantly joins the ranks of ABC's lovingly vicious dragon mothers, nearing a tier with Wendi McLendon-Covey and Constance Wu's funny moms you don't wanna mess with. John Ross Bowie, freed from the repetitive speech-impediment humor of The Big Bang Theory, alternates between straight-man and underplayed sarcasm in a way that generates immediate warmth. And, in addition to Fowler, Mason Cook and Kyla Kenedy appear to continue ABC's recent success with casting young actors. I like Cedric Yarbrough, but I don't think the pilot does a very good job of introducing his character as a person rather than just an inevitable addition to J.J.'s "team." I'm sure that'll come, though, since Speechless has its comedic voice and perspective in place early.
Desire to Watch Again: High. I like ABC's family comedy brand and this is immediately on-brand. I thought the first trailer for Speechless lacked laughs and the pilot is still a bit light on chuckles, but it's still fairly funny, very empathetic and has a lot of potential.

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