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ABC’s new comedy Speechless is eschewing tropes.
The series, which stars Minnie Driver as the mother of a child with special needs, may sound like an “issue of the week” show — but the cast and executive producers made it clear on a panel Thursday at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour that they’re headed in a entirely different direction with the comedy.
“It’s not a disability show. We’re telling family stories here,” said executive producer and writer Scott Silveri, whose special-needs brother served as the inspiration for the main character in the series played by Micah Fowler, a young actor who has cerebral palsy in real life. “Part of the reason why it was a scary endeavor is because you just hear the logline of a show with a kid with a disability and it suggests that ‘afterschool special’-ness — and that’s why we were really vigilant to do everything we could to subvert that as early as possible.”
Silveri, who previously worked on Friends, went on to add that Speechless tries to avoid navel-gazing. “It’s not a lot of sitting around, thinking, ‘Woe is me’ … nor is it a lot of, ‘Aren’t we just so lucky — look at the lesson we learned today about life based on this young man’s situation.’ We were very aware of the tropes and wanted to make it as active as possible,” he said, noting that several of the writers on staff have “experience in this world,” whether it’s having siblings with special needs or their own children with disabilities. “At its core, it’s a show about being different, not apologizing about being different, and embracing who you are.”
The comedy strikes a delicate balance of including relatable themes that explore humanity as well as plenty of silly moments. “We try to have both,” said Silveri, who also acknowledged that the subject matter that Speechless deals with can be intense. “These are images and families that you don’t see represented that much. So we’re mindful of the fact that it is powerful and we never want to be manipulative,” he said.
For her part, Driver also emphasized that the show isn’t an “issue-based” one. “We’re first and foremost a comedy that people can relate to,” she said onstage. “We never, ever wanted to do that ‘movie of the week, here’s another issue’ thing.”
Earlier on Thursday, new ABC chief Channing Dungey addressed the room full of press for the first time, and during her half-hour in the hot seat, the newly minted exec revealed that the network had been searching for a show like Speechless for quite some time. “We had talked a lot of trying to find a way to focus on a family that had a special-needs character in the show,” she said, adding that she thinks the series hit the perfect tone of being authentic, funny and not too earnest.
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