“I think it’s time I make a statement on disability,” JJ DiMeo (Micah Fowler) announces early in this week’s episode of the ABC sitcom Speechless. This is something of a surprise from both JJ and the show itself, both of which have worked very hard to keep JJ from being defined solely by his cerebral palsy. But this is JJ being wisely cynical — it’s for the short he’s making as his NYU film school application — and Speechless recognizing that it’s earned the right after two-and-a-half endearing seasons to tell the occasional story that’s heavy on the wheelchairs.
This one, “W-H– WHEELCHAIR P-L– PLANET,” is actually very heavy on them. JJ’s film is a Twilight Zone-style tale set in a world where disabled people are the norm, and the one man who can walk is mocked and hunted as a freak. And the entire episode takes place over the long night that JJ gets his parents, siblings and his aide Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) to help shoot it. But it’s also, in that very self-assured Speechless way, about more than just JJ’s chair, or the voice board that Kenneth and others use to speak for him, or any of the other specifics of life with CP. There are utterly goofy subplots, like father Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) repeatedly mistaking JJ’s new girlfriend Izzy (Kayla Maisonet) for wife Maya (Minnie Driver) from behind, or Kenneth and JJ’s brother Ray (Mason Cook) conspiring to erase embarrassing footage from the nanny cam JJ is using to help shoot the movie. And the episode’s central tension is less about the making of the movie than about helicopter mom Maya struggling with the idea that the child who has defined the last 18 years of her life could soon be living on the other side of the country.
It’s a strong installment of another terrific year for one of TV’s best comedies. As Speechless has done so well for so long, “W-H– WHEELCHAIR P-L– PLANET” deftly mixes and matches characters and tones. Izzy (who’s quirky in a way that suggests she might have a disability of her own, but the show doesn’t make a big deal of it because every family has their own stuff) only appeared a few weeks ago and has already turned out to be a strong partner for most of the ensemble. Here, she continues this season’s welcome trend of allowing marvelous straight man Bowie to behave more ridiculously. The business with the nanny cam, meanwhile, is ultra-broad Sitcom 101-type material, but even the characters are aware of it (Ray and Kenneth observe that they’ve each become too weird lately). And the show’s sillier aspects are necessary to counterbalance the moments that are more sincere or painful, like a lovely speech Maya delivers near the end about the bittersweet nature of parenting.
Maya’s concern about what she’ll do when JJ is out of the house is one that’s surely reverberating through the Speechless writers’ room right now. Every show about kids in high school runs into a version of this problem when graduation time approaches. It’s more acute here, though, because even if all the stories aren’t about JJ’s disability, his needs are a fundamental fact of life for all the other characters — and they inform and enrich nearly every story on the show in some way. But if handled as smartly and sensitively as most everything the series has done over the years, JJ living elsewhere (whether at NYU or, more likely for storytelling purposes, a local SoCal college) should still provide plenty of fodder for this well-rounded group.
It’s a challenge I hope we get to see the series tackle. This season has unfolded in relative anonymity, since ABC relocated Speechless and Fresh Off the Boat to low-rated Friday timeslots in the fall. It’s unclear whether the Fox/Disney merger will affect the future of the show (which is produced by Fox’s studio, soon to come under the same corporate umbrella as ABC), but Speechless is too good to end anytime soon.