Speechless Premiere: Does ABC's New Comedy Deserve a Standing Ovation?

There’s a new family joining ABC’s rock-solid Wednesday night comedy block — and so far, it looks like they’re going to fit in just fine.

Speechless, which debuted Wednesday night, introduces us to the DiMeo family, led by hard-charging mom Maya (Minnie Driver). Along for the ride are husband Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), brainy son Ray (Mason Cook), and track-star daughter Dylan (Kyla Kenedy). But Maya’s main focus is her special-needs son, JJ (Micah Fowler), whom she tirelessly defends with mama-bear ferocity.

JJ’s cerebral palsy confines him to a wheelchair, and he can’t speak, so he has to point a laser at a list of words and letters to communicate. In the wrong hands, a show about him could easily get too sentimental or “message”-y. But Speechless does a great job of subverting those expectations with an irreverent sense of humor. The laughs aren’t directed at JJ, but instead at all the well-intentioned people walking on eggshells around him.

We meet the DiMeos in a typically frantic moment, with Maya piling everyone into the family van to redeem a breakfast coupon that expires in… three minutes. As she steers the van wildly around traffic and construction, she calmly sips from a cup of coffee provided by Jimmy. (“Mmmm… hazelnut?”) It’s when they arrive at the restaurant that we learn JJ is disabled, thanks to a nosy lady complaining about their use of the handicapped parking spot.

Ray, though, is tired of all the chaos. When Maya takes the family to check out a shabby shack of a house in a new school district, he’s upset that they’re thinking of moving again; a new school would be his sixth in two years, he says. Maya shuts him down, though, insisting the new school will be great for JJ. It would even provide him with a full-time aide, and finally “give him a voice.”

Unfortunately, that voice belongs to Jennifer (Dina Spybey-Waters), the new school’s dorky aide who’s way too eager to sound cool: “I hit the Urban Dictionary and got up on all the lingo!” And the rest of the school is a overly PC nightmare, with a track coach who tells everyone they’re doing “amazing” no matter how slow they run, and a teacher who has his class welcome JJ with a standing ovation — and immediately regrets it. (“Oh God, he can’t stand! The ovation is insensitive! Everyone sit down!”)

But the school also has a Lionel Richie-loving groundskeeper named Kenneth (Reno 911!‘s Cedric Yarbrough, always a delight), who clashes with Maya early on, but bonds with JJ enough that by episode’s end, he agrees to be JJ’s new aide. (Is anyone else concerned that Kenneth is not in any way qualified or trained for this? Just me?) And Ray discovers a planetarium — and a girl — that convince him to give this new school a try.

The cast has undeniable appeal: Driver is a force of nature as Maya (thank God they didn’t force an American accent on her), and Cook is terrific as the quiet child who always gets lost in the shuffle. Plus, future episodes should have lots of fun mocking the school’s earnest insistence on “inclusivity.” Modern Family, black-ish, and The Goldbergs set a pretty high bar on Wednesday nights, but based on this premiere, Speechless might just earn its spot next to them.

Did Speechless deliver enough laughs and heart to earn a season pass from you? Grade the premiere below, then hit the comments and share your thoughts.

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