When I first saw the trailer for ABC’s Speechless, it was shortly after my son was diagnosed with autism, and I was prepared to self-righteously hate it. It conjured the first and only memory I have of my child being mocked: As my son head-butted the side of a car-shaped grocery cart, an older boy in line behind us did the same. Declan thought he was being included in a game. I knew he was being excluded from one.
This is the sort of tone I feared Speechless might strike—one that generated humor by merely playing at inclusion. The 30-minute sitcom features JJ DiMeo, a 16-year-old boy who is rendered speechless by cerebral palsy, and the other DiMeos as they grapple with life as a special needs family in Newport Beach, California. Its premise reads like it should be a drama a la Parenthood. From the get-go, however, it promised to move against the sentimental current that drives most other shows about kids with special needs.
Based solely on the trailer, Speechless seemed uncomfortably irreverent to me, siphoning humor from the special needs community. As I’ve continued to watch it, though, I’ve realized this careful irreverence actually enables Speechless not only to depict the challenges of a special needs family holistically but also to raise broader questions about metaphorical voicelessness and privilege. To accomplish this, the show’s creators tap into the vestiges of a fading form of humor—namely, humor as a form of grace. This unexpected tone won me over as a viewer and empowered me to find a similar grace in my own life.
By the time I hate-watched one episode of Speechless, the sticker shock of my son’s diagnosis had worn off. We were still walking through the heavy moments of autism, but they’d started to take on a dark sort of humor at times, too—humor I felt forbidden to laugh at. This is one of the ways in which Speechless succeeds: by casting off the obligatory homage to sentimentality, the show speaks to the sort of gut-wrenching, irreverent comedic tension we’re socially inhibited from giving voice to.
Precisely because Speechless approaches a special needs family via the formula of a modern sitcom, it reaches the most uncomfortable places of life for some families—places dramas like Parenthood are not agile enough to access. A quirky family sitcom is perfectly positioned to perform a quick pivot from the absurd to the serious without giving its audience whiplash. By doing so, the show’s writers highlight our long-held social expectations, and then succinctly speak doubt into those expectations.
For example, one ongoing arc in the show highlights the dehumanizing effects of pandering to the vulnerable by exaggerating that pandering to the point of absurdity. We see this in episode 10 when JJ is awarded a choir solo, despite his physical inability to speak, let alone sing. The entire choir earnestly applauds JJ’s talent, ignoring the fact that Kenneth, JJ’s aide, is very obviously the one performing. The farce raises the question: How far are we willing to extend the illusion of JJ’s typicality? At what point does it become absurd? And is our discomfort in acknowledging JJ’s differences rooted in the same sentiment as racial “color-blindness”—a nonsensical insistence on sameness that erases differences that we actually interpret as inferiorities?
The same moment is used to continue another theme woven into the series: the various and often unexpected forms social privilege takes. The premise of Speechless is JJ’s vulnerability, and viewers therefore expect to see him as the show’s victim. This rarely happens. Instead, JJ’s unexpected advantages are used frequently to examine social privilege.