Series / Speechless

Speechless is an ABC sitcom airing in 2016 starring Minnie Driver and introducing Micah Fowler.

The series follows the DiMeo family, led by take-charge matriarch Maya (Driver) who does everything in her power to give her son J.J. (Fowler), who has cerebral palsy, a normal teenage life. Unfortunately for the rest of the family —father Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), brainy middle-child Ray (Mason Cook), and hyper-competitive youngest Dylan (Kyle Kenedy)— this has resulted in entire neighbourhoods avoiding them and having to transfer schools six times in the past two years thanks to Maya's abrasive personality and inability to get other schools to accommodate J.J. better. As the series begins, another move has taken the DiMeos to "the worst house in the best school district" (in this case, best also meaning mainstream) so that J.J. can have a permanent interpreter in his classes. Though the initial interpreter is a poor fit, J.J. soon befriends the school janitor Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) and appoints him as his voice, and the family finally begins to settle in.

The series has been lauded as groundbreaking for casting Fowler, who also has cerebral palsy, in the role of J.J.

This series contains examples of:

  • The Ace: Becca, a newcomer to Maya's group of disabled child mothers. Maya soon becomes jealous of her because she's the only member of the group who has her life together (has time to make gifts, put on make up, and organize her house). This is because Maya's always had a chaotic life taking care of J.J., and is worried that if someone can do it more orderly than her that she might be doing it wrong after all.
  • All Issues Are Political Issues: Many people outside the family steer things back to J.J.'s cerebral palsy, often because it either benefits them or they think he's Inspirationally Disadvantaged.
  • Batman Gambit: Ray pulls one in "R-o-Road T-r-Trip" to make the family's spontaneous road trip follow his own plans. Most of this involves him banking on the fact that the family will do the opposite of anything he suggests.
  • Berserk Button: Maya towards anybody who dares mock her son, or performs any act of ableism.
  • Bread, Eggs, Breaded Eggs: The school gives out trophies for Participation, Most Improved, and Most Improved Participation.
    Maya: Now that's the one you break!
  • Brick Joke: After making J.J. a new Totally Radical word board, Maya points out that she had to take off "bathroom", so maybe J.J. can replace it with "Hells yeah, bitch". Later, at the football game:
    Kenneth: You enjoying yourself, J.J.?
    J.J.: Hells yeah, bitch!
    Kenneth: That's new.
    Maya: Oh! That means he has to use the bathroom. Out of the way, out of the way!
  • Butt Monkey: Ray, to ridiculous lengths.
    • The school principal is another example.
  • Cast Herd: The main cast can usually be split into three pairs: J.J. and his interpreter Kenneth, parents Maya and Jimmy, and younger siblings Ray and Dylan.
  • Centipede's Dilemma: J.J.'s physiotherapist tells Ray that his walk is slightly off, causing him to be unable to walk normally for the rest of the episode.
  • Curse Cut Short: J.J.'s comeback at his teacher, "eat a bag of dicks", isn't finished by his first interpreter - which is a major taboo and leads to him trying to get rid of her.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The whole DiMeo family, as well as Kenneth.
  • Disabled Snarker: J.J. in spades. He likely gets it from his mother. Case in point, when nominated to run for Class President simply because he's disabled, his response is "eat a bag of dicks".
  • Disaster Dominoes: In "D-i-Ding", Ray accidentally collapses a display of jars, which break and make a spill causing J.J. to slide across the floor and knock a cart into a different display, and Ray trying to catch them trips into a third display.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: Kenneth gets so into using J.J.'s inspiring predicament that he accidentally loses his word board (J.J.'s only way to communicate). When he finally realizes what he's done and how badly he screwed up, he attempts to play it off with a joke. J.J. continues to be, rightfully, pissed about it.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Maya, who makes a ten minute trip in three minutes by way of driving off the road and banking on cops being too afraid of her to ticket her for speeding, all to take advantage of an about-to-expire breakfast coupon.
  • The Dreaded: Maya. She's allowed to get away with speeding fairly often because, as one cop tells his partner who's about to go after her, "life's too short". Furthermore, all of J.J.'s previous schools called his new one to warn them about her.
  • Drunk Driver: J.J. gets drunk in "H-a-l-Halloween". Of course, what he's driving is his wheelchair, but the jokes made are in a similar vein.
  • False Flag Operation: J.J. and Maya pull one in "B-o-Bonfire" in order to help J.J. win back his friends' approval. They tie him to a football goal and make it look like it was done by Lafayette High's rivals. Not only does it make them like him again, but they ruthlessly trounce the opposing football team in the ensuing game as vengeance.
  • Funny Background Event: The "Dead to Maya" list that was written on the wall in "H-a-l-Halloween" is still there in subsequent episodes.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Dylan has a lot of rage.
  • Handy Helper: Kenneth is hired to be J.J.'s "voice" - J.J. communicates with a head-mounted laser pointer and a board attached to his chair filled with letters, numbers, and common words to help him form sentences; Kenneth is there to read these out to whoever needs to hear them. When at home, the rest of J.J.'s family fills this role.
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: After Kenneth innocently implies that Dylan mainly runs because J.J. can't, Dylan goes through an existential crisis because she thought she was just doing it because she liked it. The question of why she runs ends up spreading to the rest of the track team, including the coach.
  • Hilariously Abusive Childhood: The kids had this mainly due to the family cutting corners on things like furniture and tact in order to support J.J. For example, Dylan used an old fish tank as a crib.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Each episode title takes the form of somebody interpreting J.J.'s messages. For example, "P-i-Pilot", "N-e-New A-i-Aide", etc.
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: The entire point of the show is to subvert this - J.J. can be just as lewd, irresponsible, and rebellious as any other teenager.
    • J.J.'s entrance is applauded the moment he enters his class, simply because he's disabled. Then he's immediately nominated for class president by his homeroom before they even meet him. When pressed further, the teacher just gives out meaningless platitudes about how brave J.J. is instead of saying it outright.
    • Also subverted when Kenneth starts being J.J.'s official interpreter.
    J.J.: Have questions?
    Kenneth: I do actually. What perspective does the disability experience lend -
    J.J.: Real questions?
    • They try to exploit this in "I-n-s-Inspirations" by using both J.J.'s cerebral palsy and Kenneth's Gentle Giant appearance to skip lines and get free food, baseball tickets, etc. However, Kenneth goes too far and starts using it to just get what he wants, leading to him and J.J. having a fight.
    • Then in "H-e-Hero", a student that J.J. doesn't even know writes an essay for a contest about how J.J. inspires him every day. So J.J. tries to one-up him by helping Ray write an even more cliched essay for the same contest.
  • Magical Negro: Kenneth calls out and mocks this trope in "H-E-Hero", in the context of J.J. being considered a hero to inspire fully abled people instead of being his own person.
  • Mama Bear: Maya to J.J. She is very protective of him and will lash out against anyone who acts against him, be it through outright ableism or simply ignorance.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Ray meets a girl who specifically names herself one, and pretends to be into all the same random stuff. When she sees a picture of his real self at the school, he panics and throws a chair through a window, causing the girl to say he's too freaky even for her.
  • Medal of Dishonor: The school gives out trophies for Participation, Most Improved, and Most Improved Participation. Dylan breaks one, and the school almost gives her a trophy for that.
  • My Beloved Smother: Maya's care for J.J. can get a little over-the-top, even for J.J.
  • Never Heard That One Before: People asking J.J. "You got a license for that thing?". The family bets on how many people at the grocery store will ask him. J.J. says eleven. Thousand.
  • Never My Fault: Maya rarely accepts responsibility for anything she does wrong, and as Ray points out, she can cause a lot of chaos when she’s in public. Though in "D-i-Ding", she really isn’t guilty of dinging the car.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Dylan. When planning the school's haunted house, she suggested getting real blood (pig or human, she didn't care) and waterboarding the students. The committee thought it was great.
  • Noodle Incident: In "B-o-Bonfire", after Dylan's track team begin revealing the deeper reasons behind why they like running, one young girl admits that she deserves the pain that comes from practicing so hard because of...something she did in the past.
  • Poke the Poodle: When Maya and Becca get into a fight over who's a better mother, Maya tries to get back at her by unsealing her containers in her pantry. It doesn't do much good, since everything inside is also vacuum-sealed.
  • Political Correctness Gone Mad:
    • J.J.'s new school falls into this in a meaningless, and still ignorant, manner. They changed their mascot from a viking (which represented pillaging and toxic masculinity) to a sea slug (which has both male and female genitalia) to appear more inclusive, but their wheelchair ramp is in the back of the school and doubles as a ramp for the garbage bins.
    • In "B-o-Bonfire", Maya gets the annual bonfire cancelled because the location is inaccessible to J.J. His peers decide that even though it's not really his fault, not being mad at him just because he's disabled would be "unfair", and proceed to shame him.
    • Happens to Kenneth in "O-s-Oscar P-a-Party". First he successfully redesigns a movie trivia game so that all the town's disabled kids are on a level playing field (such as giving everyone word boards and pointers, and presenting questions in audio and visual form). But when J.J. and another kid try to get into a fight, he tries to make that all-inclusive too, resulting in all their parents walking in when on the kids flailing pool noodles at each other, some blindfolded, others with limbs duct-taped together, and Kenneth filming the whole thing. Though to be fair, the kids loved it.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The whole football team does this against their rivals when J.J. and Maya frame them for pranking J.J. Even the equipment manager and referee are getting in on the action.
  • Ruptured Appendix: Ray gets one in "R-o-Road T-r-Trip".
  • Shipper on Deck: Dylan thinks Ray and Jillian would be perfect together. In fact, she screams it in her face.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Between Ray and Dylan. Ray is uptight, intellectual, and awkward. Dylan is outgoing, athletic, and a Nightmare Fetishist.
  • Soapbox Sadie: Maya DiMeo on behalf of her son. She's happy to talk smack at anybody making fun of him and is constantly pushing to make his schools and environments more accessible. Unfortunately, she goes about it so abrasively that some people are put off by this.
  • Speech Impediment: J.J. cannot communicate verbally due to his cerebral palsy, hence his usage of a laser pointer and word-board.
  • Tempting Fate: Ray's disbelief in the pilot that the family can get to a restaurant ten minutes away in three minutes to take advantage of a coupon. Maya takes it as a challenge, and Ray is too late to take it back.
  • Token Shipping: J.J. accuses Kenneth of doing this with him and Clare just because they're both in wheelchairs. Kenneth retorts that J.J. has been trying to get him together with the only other black woman in their neighbourhood, though J.J. claims it's because she's a Libra.
  • Vanity License Plate: Maya's car has the plate "SHE NUTS". Possibly subverted, however, as one cop states that she didn't ask for it - the DMV had heard about her and just gave it to her.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: J.J. gives Kenneth one after the latter removes and subsequently loses his word board.
    J.J.: Today was about why I wanted. You took away my real voice. You don't get to do that.
  • Wild Teen Party: J.J. goes to one in "H-a-l-Halloween", hoping that he can finally try some beer.
  • Your Mom: J.J. makes several of these jokes towards his new friends at school.