Saturday, September 10, 2016

2016 Pilot Preview: "Speechless"

“You fight and fight to make sure JJ has a normal life. Maybe he’s not the only one who deserves that.”
- Jimmy

If you’ve noticed, the amount of pilots available to view before they premiere (unless you are industry insider which alas we here at More TV, Please are not) has gone down drastically. In fact, it looks like “Speechless” may be the only one available before things really start kicking off which is too bad because there were a lot of shows I would have checked out if they’d been available. As it is, I watched this pilot twice as I was getting ready to blog it. So let’s dive in to the plot a bit.

“Speechless” centers on JJ and his family. JJ has cerebral palsy and is nonverbal. He and the family have moved around quite a bit recently. As his younger brother, Ray, mentions they’ve been to six schools in two years. It’s clear that Ray is tired of all the upheaval in his life but mom is convinced she’s found the perfect situation for JJ. Up until this point he’s been stuck in Special Ed classes without a voice. But at this new school, he’s going to be mainstreamed and have a full-time aide to be his voice (reading off his board). I’ll admit I didn’t realize that he was wearing a laser pointer clipped to his glasses on first watch through. The aide they get at first has a really annoying voice and ultimately gets fired. But it seems by the end of the episode, JJ has found his voice in cool janitor Kenneth. IT also appears the family is staying put, which makes Ray happy because he found a girl who likes him (even if she’s got a boyfriend for now) and their younger sister is thrilled with the super expensive running track (even if the whole “believing everyone can do their best” is stupid).

There are some good things about this show that I think need to be pointed out. The first is that I think it is admirable they cast someone with cerebral palsy to play JJ. The young actor, Micah Fowler, is relatively new to the acting scene but I’m intrigued to see how he does. The second, somewhat related, is you don’t often see shows (comedies or otherwise) that focuses on someone with a disability. Sure you had “Growing Up Fisher” a few years ago (which really was great and shouldn’t have been cancelled) but on the whole, it is a segment of society that is not often given a voice or shown in the mainstream media. Bringing awareness to the world about people who are differently abled but still equally as awesome is a lofty goal and I hope the writers and actors on this show achieve that goal as “Speechless” goes forward.

Now, I did have some quibbles as well. I understand that not every disabled kid can have parents like mine that let me advocate so strongly for myself as I grew up. And I get that with JJ’s limitations, it’s hard for him to speak up. But I did think that Minnie Driver’s Maya was a bit over the top in that she seemed to be so laser focused on what JJ wanted and needed that she ignored her other children, to their detriment. In fact, it seemed the whole underlying plot of the episode was that her zealous advocacy for one child overshadowed the needs and wants of Ray. Yes, in the end they came to a resolution of sorts but it kind of hurts my heart to see that. Also, I don’t know if they wanted to balance it out gender wise but the daughter (whose name I’m not even sure of at this point) didn’t have much to do. She was very low on personality or memorability. I think the pilot would have been fine without her.

The biggest turn off for me (and who knows, maybe it will be toned down in later episodes) was the people at the new school. For starters, the principal talked with her hands as if JJ didn’t understand anything which annoyed me. And then when JJ got to class, the teacher had all the students clap and stand when he entered (oh and one kid—whose cousin is deaf—made a sign saying JJ should be Student Council President). The teacher also couldn’t bring himself to say that they’d never had a disabled student before (which let’s be honest, was pretty evident from the fact there was an entire scene about the fact that JJ had to use the garbage ramp at the back of the school to get into the building). It drives me up a wall when people treat individuals with disabilities as if they don’t understand anything or assume that all people with disabilities are the same. I’ve had to deal with that my whole life and it’s insulting and rude. I would be very displeased if they continued to portray the characters at the school this way beyond the pilot.

Overall, I think the pilot did a good job of establishing most of the characters (the sister needs some work as she is very one dimensional at this point and almost forgettable) and the basic premise. It will be interesting to see where the show goes next and what kind of issues they will tackle. I do believe the creator grew up with a sibling who was at the very least in a wheelchair so I trust they will have some unique perspectives and challenges ahead of JJ and his family. This show may be one that I set to record and let build up and just binge from time to time (as I do have a lot of other shows on my list right now). As I said, I generally enjoyed the episode and would like to see where the characters go next. It is certainly a breath of fresh air on our TV landscape of never-ending reboots and remakes and TV to movie tie=ins. And hey, it got me to watch a comedy (not something I do very often).

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