I’m worried about one of my favorite TV shows right now.
Fresh Off the Boat (which I’ve written about for the blog before) and Speechless, two ABC sitcoms, are now part of the new TGIF lineup. Shows getting pushed to Friday night, when people are out doing bigger and better things, feels like a bad thing.
Speechless is one of the rarest forms of entertainment, the white whale of a show that treats disabled people with respect and represents them as actual people. The show relates to my personal research in disability studies, so when it was announced a season ago I felt like I needed to watch it. I’m tired of bad portrayals of disability, texts that treat chronic illness as a curse, especially. When I watch things that show nonormative bodies, I brace myself for impact, hoping against hope that this one isn’t as bad as the last. But all that bracing and anticipation wasn’t needed for Speechless, which features Micah Fowler as JJ DiMeo, a teen with cerebral palsy. Fowler and JJ share the disability--though to varying degrees--and neither of them treat their disability like a tragedy. The show depicts disability as a thing people can experience in their life, not a grand tragedy to overcome or push through. JJ Does experience accessibility issues, but it’s not anything that grinds his life to a halt. He pursues a variety of goals with success--like becoming a filmmaker and getting a girlfriend.
The show features a wide and talented cast of characters. Alongside JJ is his colorful family, all of whom fill a role in the world of sitcom stereotypes: Ray the nerdy brother, Dylan the jock sister, Jimmy the bumbling dad, Maya the overbearing mom, Kevin the enthusiastic caretaker. The show has enough characters who are different enough to supply varying and interesting plots that don’t center on JJ.
Of course, JJ is the heart of the show, but part of the challenge of making a show about a disabled character is showing that life continues on as normal around them. Ray still struggles with popularity, and Dylan still constantly annoys her siblings in her quest to become the best athlete. Yes, JJ is disabled and that makes some things--like travel--difficult for the family, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t deal with mundane life stresses. Again, disability isn’t a death sentence or a sign that things won’t be “normal.” While this message shouldn’t be considered progressive or new, it is. I can’t think of another television show that portrays disability in such an even keeled light. Sometimes JJ is nice. Sometimes he’s an asshole. More than anything, he’s just a person--a person who also has cerebral palsy.
There are some questionable things about Speechless, I guess. I constantly wonder how the DiMeos manage to do as much as they do financially. Sometimes the show attempts to explain how they take a trip to London or pay for five people to do an escape room, but sometimes they don’t, and to some extent, that’s okay. It’s a sitcom, and the characters have to be able to do things in order for the show to move forward sometimes. Also, diversity is not a strong suit of the show. The DiMeos, though they don’t seem racist (and have a very loving, caring relationship with Kevin), also live in a fairly white world. While I don’t have a particular solution to this, it’s definitely noticeable.
Should you be watching Speechless? Yes. Yes, you should. It’s one of the highlights of my week when I have a new episode to watch. Sitcoms occupy a special place in my life, even though a few years ago I would have laughed at enjoying such “silly” television (yes, I used to be a TV snob). Every week, I eat lunch and escape for 20 or so minutes, into the world of the DiMeos and whatever silliness they’re up to. And it feels good to see a family that’s not just a group of able-bodied folks, good to see a different sort of diversity--one that is much needed.