'Speechless': TV Review

Speechless Cast Still H 2016
ABC/Kevin Foley
Sweet and funny without being sentimental.

ABC's new comedy about disability manages to avoid being too saccharine, with a major assist from Minnie Driver.

The best network shows are almost always comedies these days — and while there are plenty of not very good shows of both dramatic and comedic ilk this fall, one that stands out in how it proves a broadcast network is sometimes the best place for warm-hearted laughs is ABC's very strong Speechless, about a boy with cerebral palsy, his aggressively protective mother and the rest of the family, who try not to get lost in the lights of those two strong forces.

Created by Scott Silveri (Friends), who comes from a family with a special-needs child (and who employs writers who have experience in similar situations), and starring actor Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy, Speechless is a series that's funny and thoughtful and quirkily different enough not to implode into, as Silveri called it recently, "the disability show."

Make no mistake — Speechless is funny because of the writing, first and foremost, and that writing is brought to life by the always spot-on Minnie Driver (About a Boy, The Riches) as the mother. But Silveri told critics recently that his new series goes out of its way not to leave a feeling of "an afterschool special" nor does it want to be all about positive, inspiring moments, noting that in the disabled community there's a derisive term called "inspiroporn" used to lampoon overly sentimental representations.

What viewers get instead here is a solid pilot that hints that Speechless has plenty of surprises to offer but mostly is just good at being tartly funny while almost accidentally being sweet, too.

Driver stars as Maya DiMeo, the notoriously ferocious mother to J.J. (Fowler, a real standout in a demanding role), who has been constantly fighting for his rights from school to school throughout Los Angeles. The family is used to moving and sometimes that puts pressure on the other siblings, notably brother Ray (Mason Cook), who is probably the only level-headed one in the family. When Maya moves the kids to Newport Beach because the school there has promised her a full-time "voice" for her son in each class, Ray is initially angry at moving again until he finds out it might actually be good for him, too: "They have a planetarium. With a girl in it. Who likes me. This will never happen again."

Silveri and the writers seem to be smartly intent on creating stories outside of J.J. and Maya. The dad, Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), is the calm to Maya's storm but has his own sense of relaxed quirk; he's not just an observer to the chaos. Younger daughter Dylan (Kyla Kenedy) is a refreshing change of pace for a kid actor because in the pilot we learn that she kind of hilariously yells at dumbasses like a bulldozer.

Cedric Yarbrough plays Kenneth, the school's janitor, who claims to be the only black person in all of Newport Beach and knows a little something about being the outsider — and even though he ends up being J.J.'s new school "voice," it's not as saccharine as you might expect. All of that is a testament, at least in the pilot, to Silveri's interest in writing about something personal and trying to keep it real and funny in the process. A show like Speechless would, of course, be given a completely different makeover on cable — all right angles, piss and vinegar — but sometimes a lighter touch in the network style fits the form better and gets better results, which is what Speechless is hoping for.

It's a promising pilot that gets the balance right on humor and heart, and that's enough reason to give it a chance going forward.

Cast: Minnie Driver, Micah Fowler, John Ross Bowie, Cedric Yarbrough, Mason Cook, Kyla Kenedy
Created by: Scott Silveri
Premieres: Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET/PT, ABC

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

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