Kenneth wants more — maybe he can score Rolling Stones tickets. JJ balks. He hates being pitied and feels like Kenneth is using him. Using his laser pointer to pick out words and letters from his communication board, he sends an angry message: “You took my real voice. You don’t get to do that.”
That’s one situation in one of the most radical situation comedies on TV today — ABC’s “Speechless” (8:30 p.m. Wednesdays). The series, created by Scott Silveri, who grew up with a special needs brother, boldly puts a kid with a disability front and center — and definitely gives him a voice.
Actor Micah Fowler has cerebral palsy in real life. (Unlike the character JJ, he can speak.) In a TV landscape where actors without disabilities typically portray characters with disabilities, Fowler is a groundbreaker. He delivers a brilliant silent performance, with a glint of mischief in his eyes as he defies limits and looks of utter exasperation when he’s patronized — like when classmates at his new school applaud him, yelling “JJ for president!”
The show has its trite moments — Minnie Driver chows down on the scenery as the overbearing mom, dad is hapless, younger siblings squabble like countless sitcom sibs. But each week, “Speechless” sheds light on the life of a kid with a disability — and the guilt family members feel for craving a “non-wheelchair accessible” day of togetherness.
Sometimes I feel guilty laughing at JJ’s dilemmas. So I asked Kaitlyn Meuser, 26, who has cerebral palsy and works for United Cerebral Palsy in D.C., to weigh in.
She appreciates that the show doesn’t have an “afterschool special” vibe: “It doesn’t see the disability in his life as something to feel bad about.”
And so it’s okay to laugh?
“It is absolutely okay,” she says. “The disability experience is sometimes really hilarious.” And so is “Speechless.”
More of Marc’s TV musings:
‘High Maintenance’ offers small glimpses of the high lives