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Series / Speechless

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Speechless is an American sitcom which aired for three seasons (2016–19) on ABC, 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 JJ (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 (Kyla 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 JJ 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 JJ can have a permanent aid in his classes. Though the initial aid is a poor fit, JJ soon befriends the school groundskeeper, Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) and appoints him as his voice, and the family finally begins to settle in.

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

This series contains examples of:

  • Abbey Road Crossing: The promo image posted above.
  • 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 JJ, and is worried that if someone can do it more orderly than her that she might be doing it wrong after all.
  • Acting Unnatural: Kenneth and Ray when they try to get rid of a bear camera with embarrassing footage of them on it. Whenever anyone comes in, they attempt to act natural and fail spectacularly.
  • Aesop Amnesia: Lessons about treating people with disabilities properly (and not using disabilities to take advantage of people) don't seem to stick with the cast.
  • All Issues Are Political Issues: Many people outside the family steer things back to JJ'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.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Both of Dylan's brothers. JJ actively tries to protect his sister from getting her heart broken by a crush she falls for in his class by telling her that she was embarrassing JJ. And when a social media Jerkass knocks her over in "J-i-Jimmy V-a-l-Valentine", nerdy and meek Ray ''punches him''.
  • Book Dumb: In "F-A-Fashion 4 A-All", an aptitude test reveals that Dylan is the smartest person in class, yet her academic grades are below average. Dylan eventually discovers that it's because grades remind her of Ray, and she doesn't want to end up a pretentious loser like him.
  • 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 JJ a new Totally Radical word board, Maya points out that she had to take off "bathroom", so maybe JJ can replace it with "Hells yeah, bitch". Later, at the football game:
    Kenneth: You enjoying yourself, JJ?
    JJ: 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: JJ and his interpreter Kenneth, parents Maya and Jimmy, and younger siblings Ray and Dylan.
  • Centipede's Dilemma: JJ'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: JJ'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.
  • Dingy Trainside Apartment: In the pilot episode, it's revealed that the DiMeos always choose "the worst house in the best school district." A flashback to a previous home has Maya complain that it's next to the freeway. Jimmy points out that it's only near the freeway, it's next to the railroad, and at that point a huge train comes roaring past.
  • Disability as an Excuse for Jerkassery:
    • Kenneth and JJ exploit the general public's outlook on JJ's situation in "I-n-s-Inspirations."
    • In "S-h-Shipping," a new girl with cerebral palsy, named Norah, transfers to JJ's school. The entire student body ships the pair, just because they both have a disability. JJ and Norah decide to exploit this by agreeing to stick together just long enough to be voted homecoming king and queen, respectively.
  • Disabled Snarker: JJ 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 JJ to slide across the floor and knock a cart into a different display, and Ray trying to catch them trips into a third display.
  • Distaff Counterpart: "S-h-Shipping" introduces Norah, a girl with cerebral palsy, to JJ's school.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: Kenneth gets so into using JJ's inspiring predicament that he accidentally loses his word board (JJ'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. JJ 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 JJ's previous schools called his new one to warn them about her.
  • Drunk Driver: JJ 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: JJ and Maya pull one in "B-o-Bonfire" in order to help JJ 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.
  • Flipping the Bird: J.J. attempts it in the pilot. As Maya points out, "it's a work in progress."
  • 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.
  • Game of Chicken: "S-p-Special B-Boy T-i-Time" reveals that Ray has been emotionally blackmailing Maya for things by bringing up the time she was going to have "special boy time" at a water park ten years before. Unfortunately, Maya had been onto him the whole time and calls his bluff by taking him to a water park, which they end up enjoying.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Dylan has a lot of rage.
  • Handy Helper: Kenneth is hired to be JJ's "voice" - JJ 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 JJ's family fills this role.
  • Heroic BSoD: After Kenneth innocently implies that Dylan mainly runs because JJ 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.
  • Hidden Depths: Ray. Ray is constantly concerned with the family's financial status, dreams of a well-paying job, and seems to prioritize money to the point that his dad gives him a What the Hell, Hero? speech. Turns out, Ray's focus on money comes out of concern for JJ's financial future. He knows his brother probably won't be able to live independently as an adult and wants to be able to provide for him.
    • Jimmy is a baggage handler and often has to hear complaints ranging from outraged to stupid. When Dylan spends a work day with him, she's amazed he can just take it and the rest of life's difficulty without a single complaint. After work, he reveals his unexpected coping mechanism: lying near the plane runaway and screaming at the top of his lungs as a plane's about to land.
    • Discussed by JJ and Kenneth in "F-I-FIRST S-E-C-SECOND FIRST DAY", JJ notes that he thinks it's a bit unfair that there are no boundaries with regards to Kenneth's care for him and knowledge of his family, but that JJ knows little of Kenneth's life. Kenneth then explains that he's not proud of being a double-divorcee and that he maintains contacts that he assuages his loneliness with.
  • Hilariously Abusive Childhood: The kids had this mainly due to the family cutting corners on things like furniture and tact in order to support JJ. For example, Dylan used an old fish tank as a crib.
  • Huge Schoolgirl: Katherine in "P-r-Prom?", one of a group of outcasts JJ meets when they skip the prom. Unlike the others, she wants to dance at the prom, but she's too self-conscious about her height. JJ uses the "party mode" on his wheelchair to draw attention away from her.
  • The "I Love You" Stigma: In "S-p-Special B-Boy T-i-Time", JJ tries to tell Izzy "I love your car", but Kenneth jumps the gun and says "I love you" before JJ can finish. JJ is most upset at the fact that he hadn't said it to Izzy for real yet.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Each episode title takes the form of somebody interpreting JJ's messages. For example, "P-i-Pilot", "N-e-New A-i-Aide", etc.
  • Innocuously Important Episode: JJ and Ray's subplot in "S-u-r-Surprise" (wherein Ray says he's responsible for him on this trip, and JJ expresses annoyance over having to have his younger siblings always look after him) ends up being very important for "C-h-Cheater".
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: The entire point of the show is to subvert this - JJ can be just as lewd, irresponsible, and rebellious as any other teenager.
    • JJ'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 JJ is instead of saying it outright.
    • Also subverted when Kenneth starts being JJ's official interpreter.
    JJ: Have questions?
    Kenneth: I do actually. What perspective does the disability experience lend -
    JJ: Real questions?
    • They try to exploit this in "I-n-s-Inspirations" by using both JJ'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 JJ having a fight.
    • Then in "H-e-Hero", a student that JJ doesn't even know writes an essay for a contest about how JJ inspires him every day. So JJ tries to one-up him by helping Ray write an even more cliched essay for the same contest.
  • Intoxication Ensues: Ray gets drunk while visiting JJ at college by taking three Jell-O shots at once, unaware that they were full of vodka.
  • Looking Busy: Kenneth and Ray are conspiring together to get rid of a bear camera with embarrassing footage of them on it. Whenever anyone comes in, they attempt to act natural and fail spectacularly. No one bats an eye, making them ask each other if they really are just that weird all the time.
  • Magical Negro: Kenneth calls out and mocks this trope in "H-E-Hero", in the context of JJ being considered a hero to inspire fully abled people instead of being his own person.
  • Mama Bear: Maya to JJ. 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 JJ can get a little over-the-top, even for JJ.
  • Never Heard That One Before: People asking JJ "You got a license for that thing?". The family bets on how many people at the grocery store will ask him. JJ says eleven. Thousand.
  • Never Learned to Talk: As the title indicates, as a result of being born with cerebral palsy eldest child J.J. is nonspeaking and is only able to communicate with an AAC (alternative and augmented communication device) and spells out words and sentences with a laser pointer.
  • 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.
  • Parental Neglect:
    • In the first episode, Ray accuses Maya of being so focused on giving JJ a normal life that she neglects him. Jimmy admits he has a point.
    • Dylan reveals this is why she didn't want a birthday party. Maya's pretty good at consoling others and has done so at previous parties, so Dylan didn't want to be sidelined yet again.
  • 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 Overcorrectness:
    • JJ'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 JJ. 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 JJ and another kid try to get into a fight, he tries to make that all-inclusive too, resulting in all their parents walking in 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.
  • "Risky Business" Dance: Ray attempts it in "B-I-Bikini U-N-University", but gets a splinter on his foot.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The whole football team does this against their rivals when JJ and Maya frame them for pranking JJ. 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.
    • When a new girl with cerebral palsy named Norah transfers to JJ's school, the entire student body ships them solely on the basis of their disabilities. JJ and Norah decide to use this by agreeing to stick together just long enough to be voted homecoming king and queen.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Between Ray and Dylan. Ray is uptight, intellectual, and awkward. Dylan is outgoing, athletic, and a Nightmare Fetishist.
  • Sitcom Arch-Nemesis: Logan and JJ, who have a feud stemming from the summer camp they both went to between seasons one and two. It's unknown how it started, but they're so bitter that they'll do anything asked as long as it pisses the other off.
  • Skewed Priorities: Parodied in "H-a-l-Halloween" when Maya and Jimmy learn that JJ got drunk at a party. They read him the riot act and ground him, but in private, they're giddy that they got to punish him for doing something any other teenager would do.
  • 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: JJ cannot communicate verbally due to his cerebral palsy, hence his usage of a laser pointer and word-board.
  • The Speechless: As implied by the series' name, JJ is unable to speak without using an augmentative communication device.
  • Status Quo Is God: Season 2 ends with the DiMeos evicted from their home. In the two-part season 3 opener, the house is back on the market and they try to get money to buy it back, which they do by the end of part two.
  • 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.
  • This Is Gonna Suck:
    • Lee's reaction to meeting Maya is an annoyed "Not a special needs mom."
    • The cranky old man in the "L-o-n-London" two-parter interrupting the tour has this reaction when Maya yells back at him. This is how we learn that he's her father.
  • Token Shipping: JJ accuses Kenneth of doing this with him and Clare just because they're both in wheelchairs. Kenneth retorts that JJ has been trying to get him together with the only other black woman in their neighbourhood, though JJ claims it's because she's a Libra.
    • In "S-h-Shipping," the entire student body ships JJ and new girl Norah, just because they both have a disability.
  • Truth in Television: Ray (and to a lesser extent, Dylan) becoming concerned about JJ's future prospects.
  • Twerp Sweating: Jimmy attempts to intimidate a boy who came to see Dylan in "S-p-Special B-Boy T-i-Time", but all he can come up with is trying to vacuum a tennis ball and eat a banana with a spoon (he wanted to eat an apple with a knife, but he couldn't find any apples).
  • 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.
  • Wham Episode: "C-H-Cheater!": After JJ cheats on a test, Maya needs to spend the episode convincing JJ that taking his test on his own is the first step in being a little more self-sufficient. Meanwhile, Ray becomes obsessed with a get rich quick scam after a career fair. JJ is on his way to tell his family how well he did on his retake when he overhears the reason why Ray became so concerned about getting rich quick in the episode: Ray realizes that in the future that JJ will more than likely become his and Dylan's responsibility in the future, and he wants to be able to care for JJ after his parents, which involves being financially stable. Dylan, apparently, has been thinking the same way, prompting an entirely truthful conversation between Maya, Jimmy, Ray, and Dylan regarding JJ's future - despite Maya's encouragements, JJ realistically may never be able to live on his own, have a stable job, or be able to provide for himself without assistance.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: JJ gives Kenneth one after the latter removes and subsequently loses his word board.
    JJ: Today was about what I wanted. You took away my real voice. You don't get to do that.
  • Wild Teen Party: JJ goes to one in "H-a-l-Halloween", hoping that he can finally try some beer.
  • Your Mom: JJ makes several of these jokes towards his new friends at school.