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Review: Speechless

I am not the mother of a child with cerebral palsy.

Nonetheless, a lot about ABC’s new comedy Speechless rings true to me. It’s about the DiMeos, a Southern California family with a teenager, JJ (Micah Fowler), who has cerebral palsy and uses a power wheelchair and an augcomm device. Mother Maya, played by Minnie Driver, is a ferocious advocate who moves the family from home to home (and school to school) to find the best situation for JJ. Her latest effort lands the DiMeos in upscale Newport Beach, because a high school there has promised mainstream classes and a full-time aide for JJ. The aide’s main responsibility is reading aloud the words JJ spells out on his augcomm board.

Undeniably, some of the pilot’s moments were predictably educational. JJ arrives on his first day of school to find the “accessible” entrance is a back-of-the-building ramp for trash bins. A wealthy woman with a disabled-parking placard hanging from her car’s rear-view mirror bemoans having to walk from a regular parking space when the DiMeos snag the last disabled parking spot.

But there is also JJ receiving a standing ovation from classmates and being called an inspiration merely for rolling into the room. (Belatedly realizing that JJ isn’t capable of standing, the horrified teacher admonishes the other kids: “The ovation is insensitive! Everybody down!”) Disgruntled that his “voice” aide is an unbearably chipper middle-aged woman who sounds like a fairy godmother, JJ types out messages like “Bibbidi bobbidi boo,” knowing the woman is obliged to say them aloud.

And middle child Ray (Mason Cook) is tired of being shuffled from school to school, his own feelings set aside in favor of JJ’s. “I’m not going to apologize for taking care of your brother,” Maya says. “He got the right mum.” Retorts Ray, “Yeah, he did.”

I did wonder why JJ needed an embodied “voice” when he could have used a speech-generating device instead. But that’s a small quibble. JJ eventually finds his “voice” in Kenneth, the school handyman who’d run afoul of Maya for using the word crippled. Ray and Maya have a heart-to-heart. Maybe the high school principal, teachers and students will begin to notice JJ for who he is rather than by how he gets from class to class. And while there were plenty of educational moments, other moments were just plain funny. Over all, the first day of school was promising for Speechless.

Watch Speechless on ABC, Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern. To watch the pilot on demand (no sign-in required), go to http://abc.go.com/shows/speechless/episode-guide/season-01/1-series-premiere-p-i-pilot

Posted by Laurie Watanabe on Sep 23, 2016

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