This post begins with a non sequitur. Instead of directly arguing for the merits of the show that I am trying to get you to watch, I am going to explain the obvious reasons why you should watch a good TV show besides it being a good TV show. It has been a while since I posted on this site, and strangely, it also coincided with the annual summer break on the TV schedule. [It is one of my pet peeves that the scheduled TV summer break is irrelevant in the world of digital streaming and OTT content, but I will leave that aside for now. Clearly I am going to use the break to explain away my own laziness!]
So there are at least a half a dozen shows that I am watching (or failing trying to) at this time. Besides the great shows recommended by friends, family and Netflix, I am obliged to keep up with the upcoming scheduled network programs as well. One of the strangest, and beautiful things about network programs is that the audience voice matters and does not matter in two extreme and oppositional ways. First, if a show is underwatched in the outmoded AC Nielsen measurement, it is condemned for the chopping block. However, once the numbers are in, the critical reception and fan cultures have little influence on the show’s continuation.
While a show like Breaking Bad with less than 2 million viewers per week in its initial season was renewed for bigger and badder things in the latter seasons (which also ended up pulling monster level 15 million ratings for the last few episodes), a show like Hannibal on NBC could not drag its internationally subsidized production budget into a fourth season due to poor ratings. Leaving aside the less obvious shows like The Grinder (Rob Lowe’s best comedic performance), even the more widely appreciated shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreations, 30 Rock, Better off Ted all had to fend off the specter of cancellation throughout their run.
And that is why Speechless deserves your attention, because it fell from 7 million viewers to 4.5 over the course of the first season, and opened to a modest 5 million in the second season. Compared to ABC’s Modern Family (9 million viewers) and CBS’s The Big Bang Theory (up to a surprising 20 million viewers), Speechless’ position as ABC’s third best comedy might maybe good enough for a few more seasons, but not enough to be featured as a headliner as the show deserves to be treated. I guess that is rant over, so let us take a look at the show itself.
Formally, Speechless is far less daring as some of the modern sitcoms. The A and B plot lines are very clearly demarcated and the characters are, at times, typically indistinguishable from other dysfunctional TV families from Malcom in the Middle and The Goldbergs among others. However, the content of the show makes up for any timid imitative practices from other shows. In fact, the patient evaluation of simple situations may seem as obvious and tiresome to many. What kind of a ramp should a disabled child uses in a high school? Is a garbage disposal ramp an acceptable alternative to an adaptation or is it insulting to the user? How do disabled children fight? How do they express anger? Should adaptations help bridge access for them to do things that are perceived to be bad, just as much as they allow them to do things that are socially approved? The questions in Speechless move from the mundane and practical to serious grounds on social acceptance and good behavior.
In a different era, a show like this would have been deemed too depressing or heavy on reflections for a prime-time network TV comedy. And yet, along with shows like Black-ish and Fresh Off The Boat, ABC continues to present families of all shapes and colors, while maintaining an engaging and entertaining storyline. Speechless encourages people to laugh about these things, but not in a mean-spirited way. It normalizes the needs of disabled children without trivializing them, thus performing an important function of communication that goes beyond representation. And yet, these attempts of remaking similar narratives with the focus on access feels like an intentional ploy to produce a show that can produce popular images which help visualize, if not normalize the issues of adaptation.
Disabled characters do not have a lot of visibility on network TV, unless they are used as narrative props for a specific episode or in a quirky, upbeat role as a sidekick. ABC’s new comedy Speechless engages with questions of access and disability head on, presenting important questions without exceeding the typical conventions of the sitcom. This is a precious little show, which examines the questions of what kind and degree of adaptation is acceptable. The disability presented in this show is not a magical way in which life moves on without any difficulties. The show actually lingers on the struggles without making it about sympathy or overcoming the odds. It engages with the difficulties without judgement, and that makes Speechless rather unique.
The show examines JJ, the protagonist who communicates through a words written on a board, in the context of his family and friends. The representation of siblings and parents whose lives are linked to the disability of their family member is handled with an optimism that emphasizes the importance of awareness and practical knowledge rather than an old-world idea of stoic and unquestioning togetherness. There is a lot of heart and very funny one liners in this ABC sitcom, but most of all – it is a manifestation of the transformative power of TV.
SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.