Wednesday, September 21, 2016

REVIEW: 'Speechless' - Maya Fights to Find the Perfect School for Her Son JJ in 'P-I-Pilot'

ABC's Speechless - Episode 1.01 "P-I-Pilot"

Maya DiMeo moves her family to a new, upscale school district when she finds the perfect situation for her son, JJ, who has cerebral palsy. While JJ and daughter Dylan are thrilled with the move, middle son Ray is frustrated by the family's tendencies to constantly move, since he feels his needs are second to JJ. JJ connects with Kenneth, the school's groundskeeper.

ABC's comedy brand right now is really strong. It's one of the strongest and most distinct comedy brands on any network at the moment. That's very impressive. The network's unique approach to family comedy has done very well for business. Not every show works. The Real O'Neals is still finding itself while the Friday night comedies are oftentimes off by themselves in a different classification. But there are still fun and special moments within them. Plus, when the shows are really firing on all cylinders, they are just fantastic to watch. ABC knows how to develop hit comedies. Speechless very easily could be the next hit show on the network in the same vein as black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat. It gets at the universal through the specific. It depicts a new type of modern family. The viewers are dropped into this world from a different perspective. It sets out to reframe what it makes to be a family with a special needs child.

Maya DiMeo constantly finds herself fighting for her eldest son, JJ, who has cerebral palsy. He's confined to a wheelchair and is non-verbal. He communicates with the rest of his family through a key board with letters and phrases that he points to with a laser. It's a system that works for the whole family. Maya frequently finds herself being his voice. She's fighting for him to have as normal a childhood as possible. He sees the world differently than everyone else. The rest of the family has to adjust to him. And yet, that's something they've managed to do. Yes, Maya fights so passionately for JJ. She uproots the entire family just to make life better for JJ. She moves them from school to school in the hopes of finding the perfect situation for him. And now, it seems like she has find that place where he can have a voice that's different from hers.

Maya finds a school that prides itself on its inclusivity. The school principle and teachers make sure that they celebrate JJ's inclusion in their curriculum. They are willing to pay for an aide for him just so he can go to school there. It's a big gesture that Maya latches onto. And yet, they have so much to learn about this particular family. It's one thing to offer a school and an aide. It's another thing completely for this to be the right school and the right aide. It's clear immediately that this isn't the right fit at all. The wheelchair ramp is at the back of the school next to the dumpster. Only the school's janitor and landscaper use this ramp. And now, JJ has to use it as well. Meanwhile, the aide given to JJ isn't a compatible fit. She doesn't understand JJ's humor. She often finds herself ridiculed by it as well because he doesn't like her voice saying his words. Maya is determined to uproot all of their lives once again. This school can't learn how to adjust to them. They just want to know how to handle them in the least offensive way possible. Of course, Maya will always find something to get upset about. She wants people to see that her family is normal just like everyone else. She just has to fight so much harder for it be seen like that.

JJ just wants to have a cool voice. Meanwhile, his younger brother Ray just wants to stay in one place for more than a few months. He has grown so accustomed to moving that he doesn't make the effort to put any roots down in this new school. There's a prospect for friendship right away who seems normal but Ray turns him away after seeing his mother doing what she does best: imploding this whole situation. He knows that Maya is the reason why they always have to leave school. He doesn't want to move to this new school and a new house. It's a downgrade from where they were previously living. It's the worst house in the best neighborhood. But it's literally falling apart. It's a death trap just waiting to happen. It's right next to the train tracks and there's a door that leads to a deck that isn't there. There is perhaps a little too much recklessness and child endangerment in this premiere. Maya can be a really crazy and dangerous driver. That's not the most endearing quality especially when there are child in the car. She just doesn't want a coupon to go to waste. She decides to move to this house just because JJ can go to an excellent school. None of it seems like a smart idea. But she has her reasons that she genuinely cares about.

Maya isn't willing to give this school or situation a second chance. She sees too many problems. The principle and Kenneth, the groundskeeper, are garbage and not people. The aide isn't working out. Her other kids are mad at her. And yet, JJ does find a voice that works for him. He actually bonds with Kenneth. He has a cool sounding voice and a solid sense of humor. Ray finds a reason to stay as well in the form of a girl who likes both astrology and him. Of course, all of this is complicated by Ray disobeying his mother and then realizing his crush has a boyfriend. He finds himself trapped on an amusement ride forced to talk with his mother over and over again. But it is made wonderfully clear that this family would do anything for each other. They truly care deeply for one another despite the challenges they all face. Maya knows she fights for JJ more than her other two kids. She knows she needs to work on it. Ray knows he's in trouble because of his constant need to be right. But the family fights to protect him at the school fair. It's because of JJ that Ray isn't beaten up. JJ steals the spotlight and gives this community what they want. The school wants to feel good about themselves by celebrating the inclusion of a disabled student. It's not exactly what JJ wants or was expecting. But he does seize the moment with more confidence because of Kenneth. Sure, he could tone it down a couple of notches. But this could be the start of a strong relationship. Nevertheless, this is a solid pilot that suggests something even better in the season moving forward.

Some more thoughts:
  • "P-I-Pilot" was written by Scott Silveri and directed by Christine Gernon.
  • The father of the family Jimmy knows exactly when he needs to get out of his wife's way and just let her tear into other people for their wrong actions. He knows when to be supportive. But he also knows when to tell her she's wrong and how she should correct her mistakes.
  • The daughter of the family isn't highlighted as much as the rest of the family. She yells a lot. She strives for excellence. She takes after her mother in a lot of ways. But it's still a little unclear how she fits into the dynamic of the show in a unique way.
  • Neither the family nor the aide like each other very much. The family hates the aide's voice while the aide hates how mean they all are to her. And yet, she has to pretend to be Ray after he sneaks out of the house in order to get fired.
  • Ray manages to sneak a kiss in with the girl he likes too. He seems like a more compatible match for her than the school jock anyway. They have the same interests with their love for astrology.
  • Hopefully, Ray is able to make some new friends in this school too. Again, he has that one option already. It won't take much for him to be better than his last friend who is upset that he is losing his best wingman to help with the ladies.
  • Kenneth and Maya don't get along. He doesn't take her concerns all that seriously while she shows very little concern about the flower beds he recently planted. In fact, it's pretty funny when she keeps destroying them.