Attack Helicopter Mom
“Speechless” on ABC
Oscar-nominated British actress Minnie Driver returns to TV after the short-lived 2015 adaptation of “About a Boy” in ABC’s “Speechless.” In the envelope-pushing sitcom, she stars as Maya Dimeo, the crusading mother of a special-needs teenager named JJ (actor Micah Fowler, who actually has cerebral palsy, although in a less severe form than his character). JJ gets around in a power wheelchair and “speaks” with the help of a letter board and a laser pointer. Maya serves as his outspoken advocate and all-around overprotective mama bear—which often isolates her from the rest of her family. Middle child Ray (Mason Cook) is a sweet-natured nerd who gets overlooked thanks to his mom’s single-mindedness. Youngest kid Dylan (Kyla Kenedy) takes after her mother, an outspoken, mile-a-minute dynamo who only feels at home on the school’s track field. Finally we’ve got dad Jimmy (John Ross Bowie from “The Big Bang Theory”) who adopts an easygoing, laissez-faire attitude as a counterpoint to his wife’s hypercaffeinated outrage.
Kicking off the show’s pilot, the family is in the midst of its umpteenth move. Mom is forever in search of a school district that will be sensitive to all her son’s needs. Also, the family’s crummy new house (complete with cell phone tower in the backyard) is cheap enough that they can now afford a full-time aide to help JJ—mostly by reading his speech out loud. Unfortunately they wind up with an annoying middle-aged woman, who’s awkwardly out of place in the halls of high school. Also, mom immediately clashes with the school’s kowtowing principal, demanding better wheelchair access ramps and more.
Like its main character, the pace of this show is often frantic. In its best moments, “Speechless” recalls the “we’re all in this together” nature of family-oriented shows like “The Wonder Years” or “Malcolm in the Middle.” But Driver’s brash character takes a bit of getting used to. There are hints that she’ll be softening a bit, but viewers probably shouldn’t expect too much of a change. Some concentration on the other characters in the cast might also serve to take the spotlight off manic mom. The show walks a fine line, trying to find humor in a subject to which some might be sensitive. Many of the jokes come from either non-family members stumbling over one another to be politically correct or people just trying to get out of the way of hurricane Maya when she blows into a room.
If the writers can settle into a comfortable tone for the series, they’ve got some good people to work with. Fowler, despite being nonverbal, displays a lot of charisma and heart. Cook is likable as the family’s most sane member. Bowie demonstrates solid comic chops. And Cedric Yarbrough (from “Reno: 911!”) promises to deliver some amped-up humor as the grumpy school janitor who inherits the job of JJ’s aid by pilot’s end. This unsentimental effort is definitely new ground for a network sitcom. But only time will tell if it’s particularly fertile ground.