Sep 22, 2016

Channel Surfing: Speechless - "P-I-Pilot"

Scene from Speechless
Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
While politics would suggest that there's diversity issues in America, one can easily turn to ABC to see the contrary. Over the years, the channel has been a haven for sitcoms lead by casts ranging from black (Black-ish) to Asian (Fresh Off the Boat) to gays (The Real O'Neals), and now there's one dedicated to a family raising a mentally handicapped son. The show is Speechless, and it premieres this week with an added bonus. Where most portrayals of handicapped characters have been done by able-bodied actors physically challenging themselves to limited movement, this show features Micah Fowler: a boy who actually has cerebral palsy. While his dialogue is mostly delivered through a translator (which is a central theme in the premiere), he still comes across as the big hook of the show more than the return of Minnie Driver, or the comedic styling of John Ross Bowie; both of whom star as the parents.
Like most early profile series for any social group that isn't white, the premiere hits certain beats that read like course correcting our understanding of their differences. For instance, Driver goes on a passionate defense when someone uses improper language about her son's disabilities. She also protests the school's lack of accessible ramps. These struggles are real and they all make for valid criticisms in a sitcom mold, but there's a certain portion that reads more like a pamphlet for those unfamiliar with the proper lingo. On the bright side, Speechless may do wonders in getting audiences to care about special needs kids in ways that films like My Left Foot or The Theory of Everything can't. Why? Because even with great actors, the handicap still seems distracting and fictional; as if the performance is separate from our emotional resonance. Fowler gives it his all in the premiere, and one can only hope that he's the first of many special needs actors whose workload will expand with this show's potential popularity.
Everything else about the series however reads like familiar ABC sitcom territory. Even the premise of a family moving to a new neighborhood has been done before - such as on Fresh Off the Boat, where an Asian family had to adjust to 90's Florida culture. As much as its subject adds weight to its authenticity, ABC has a serious problem with making genuinely exciting shows out of their ambitious premises. Beyond soapbox shouting about special needs, the show has "the other kid" who feels out of place, as well as the promising hip janitor/translator (played by Cedric Yarborough). The show feels like more of a formula than it should be, and Driver in particular is egregiously scattershot as a character; caring one minute while being a manic complainer the next. It could be played for laughs, but consistency helps a joke land, too.
The show isn't terrible, but merely quaint in the way that all ABC shows tend to be. They have the heartwarming family at the center to make every half hour work. There's also enough memorable moments in Speechless' first episode to make this a worthwhile viewing. The cast have strong chemistry, and that will go a long way to the show's success. The only issue is that now that we know Fowler's character, what will the show possibly offer to sustain longevity? Is it just going to be an extended P.S.A. on special needs issues? It would be fine. After all, Black-ish has gained some success with that formula. The only issue is that its subject feels more ambitious than its writing and jokes do.
Speechless is fine, though not nearly as impressive as other Fall 2016 alumnus The Good Place. Yes, the NBC series doesn't have the same hook, but it does have a structure and singularity that network TV should thrive for more often. There needs to be a distinguished quality that makes one series stand out from the next. I am sure that ABC's series are different on a molecular level, but it does feel like the plots bleed into each series. It isn't a bad thing if you watch one or two, but it does make one standing out that much more difficult. I hope this one eventually breaks the mold and does something exciting with its premise that no other show has done before.

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