Minnie Driver yelling, “Oy! Oy!” at people she disapproves of is, quite simply, a thing of beauty. But more than that, it’s an act we need to support each and every opportunity we get. Sheer joy is experienced by all within earshot when she tosses her English colloquialism like a grenade at unsuspecting offenders, and simple pleasures like this are in such short supply how dare you, I or anyone deprive the world of even one?
It’s with this in mind that I throw my full endorsement behind “Speechless,” Driver’s new ABC comedy wedged between “The Goldbergs,” “Modern Family” and “Black-ish” as the missing piece of the network’s award-worthy (and award-winning) family night lineup. Yes, there are a few pacing issues in the 22-minute pilot, and recommending a series based on one episode of television is a risky gamble critics are asked to make far too often. But we, the American constituency of television viewers, have squandered Driver’s gifts once before (R.I.P. “About a Boy”), and it’s not a risk I’m willing to take again. The world is a dark, cold place without Driver’s particular brand of justice.
So pick up your remote. Click over to ABC’s website. Sign up for Hulu. Do whatever you need to do: Just don’t let this one get canceled.
Of course, if you really want to look for them, there are other aspects of “Speechless” to admire. The pilot tracks the DiMeo family as they move to a worse house in a better neighborhood with the hope of helping their son, J.J. (Micah Fowler), receive a better education at a school more conducive to his condition. (He has Cerebral Palsy.) J.J.’s mother, Maya (Driver), is a fiercely protective and proud parent up to any challenge — be it defending the honor of her wheelchair-bound son when he’s offered a trash ramp in the back of school as an alternate access entryway, or racing across town to use a breakfast coupon before it expires. (This is when she first yells, “Oy!”)
But lost in the mix is young Ray (Mason Cook), who feels the family’s constant school changes — all to accommodate J.J. — have left him unloved and in the lurch. His dad, Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), does his best to keep things loose and fun for Ray and his sister, Dylan (Kyla Kenedy), but there’s only so much love one parent can give to make up for the lack of attention by another.
Enter: the new school. Led by a skittish principal, Dr. Miller (Marin Hinkle), and an overly P.C. teacher, Mr. Powers (Jonathan Slavin), the all-too-welcoming school presents a good opportunity for J.J. on paper, but educating the educators on how best to teach (or even talk to) a kid with CP makes Maya skittish — just as Ray finally finds a home away from home. The resulting discussion amongst the family showcases the early stages of what looks like an exciting ensemble, just as the comedy-first approach to yet another family sitcom makes “Speechless” stand out more than any inclusive message ever could.
And that’s the point. Created by Scott Silveri, this self-aware, quick-witted and altogether engrossing comedy is actively anti-tokenism, mocking the very conceit that it even could be by putting the focus on Ray instead of J.J. and cleverly jabbing at those who fight for inclusion without caring to connect with the included. Cerebral Palsy is a widespread condition in need of as much exposure as possible, if only so people can better understand how not to be a jackass when they encounter anyone suffering from CP in day-to-day life (and they will).
But “Speechless” exemplifies simple human decency without emphasizing it. Its world exists as ours should: unembellished. And in that, its powerful message could become extraordinary.
Especially, you know, with Minnie Driver shouting it; which brings us back to the real reason we all need to be watching; why “Speechless” deserves your attention this overcrowded fall; why this show really matters: Minnie Driver’s verbal assault on our nation’s mistakes cannot afford to be silenced. Oy! Listen up!
“Speechless” airs new episodes Wednesdays on ABC at 8:30pm.