In the US: Wednesdays, 8.30/7.30c, ABC. Starts September 21
In the past few years, ABC - already the home of a considerable amount of female-oriented programming - has been doing its best to diversify its diversity, through shows such as black-ish, Quantico, Fresh Off The Boat and Cristela. With Speechless, it's now trying its hand at disabilities.
Minnie Driver, forever consigned these days to the role of 'spunky mum' (cf About A Boy), is a spunky mother of three kids, one of whom (Micah Fowler) has cerebral palsy, is wheelchair-bound and can only communicate with an assistive device. Forever spunky, Driver spunkily drags her family from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, new house to new house and school to school, in an effort to find the perfect location for her differently abled son - a location that might offer a full-time assistant who can act as her son's 'voice'.
Like Son of Zorn, it's a high concept that sounds a bit awful on paper, but actually works much better in practice thanks to a diversity of diversity and a nuanced approach. While the show is happy to have Driver lecture everyone about correct language, the eventual 'voice' for her son (Cedric Yarbrough) is black and there's a tension between him and Driver about whether being black is a bigger disadvantage than being disabled in the upmarket, virtually all-white neighbourhood in which Driver and family end up.
The school might want to celebrate diversity and achievement, particularly the 'brave' Fowler, but Fowler doesn't think he's actually done anything to be celebrated. Neither does the faculty know how to talk to him and the handicapped access ramp also doubles as the garbage ramp.
Meanwhile, the daughter of the family Driver is a keen athlete who's fed up with everything being celebrated as being special, when she'd rather just win by being the best at something. Driver's spunkiness is seen as being as much a problem for the family as it is an asset. On top of that, middle son just wants some attention, too, being tired of all the attention Fowler gets and the constant upheaval.
Speechless has some obvious flaws and potential problems ahead of it. The father of the family (John Ross Bowie) is amusingly long-suffering and the show does its very level best to make him interesting in his own right. But Bowie doesn't have a fraction of Driver's presence or energy, and the character has no real desires of his own, making his presence almost superfluous to requirements.
And as with black-ish, there's going to come a point, probably quite soon, where the show runs out of 'profound and important' things to say about disability and diversity, and has to stand on the strength of its characters and situations. At the moment, I can't quite see the show managing to do that, and it'll likely very quickly revert to being any other family comedy.
All the same, a surprisingly good first episode that smartly addresses topical issues, and worth a try.
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