There’s no one way to be a family — but you might not know it from watching television.
TV families tend to be cut from the same cliché cloth: An uptight mom reminding the lazy dad that he needs to pick up his socks for once. Kids whose character descriptions span some combination of too-cool teen (see: Black-ish’s Zoey), lovably dopey goofball (see: Bob’s Burgers’ Gene), or neurotic nerd (see: The Middle’s Sue), with a close cousin of precocious and/or terrifying star student (see: Modern Family’s Alex). Maybe there’s a kooky grandparent waiting in the wings to dish out sass or surprisingly helpful advice, depending on the week (see: Fresh Off the Boat’s Grandma).
I’m not sure why ditching these stereotypes is so tricky for family sitcoms, which have leaned on them for years, from The Brady Bunch in the ’70s to Who’s the Boss in the ’80s to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in the ’90s to today.
To their credit, all of those shows did a fine job of making the clichés less boring than they could be. But looking back at them now makes it feel like TV writers and executives all sat down one day and decided that nuclear families are so fundamental to our notion of what families are that shaking things up would render their shows hopelessly confusing.
Today, the best family sitcoms build on that tradition and find a way to make even stock clichés feel like real people. Black-ish, in particular, has become one of the strongest family sitcoms in years by starting from the clichés their characters inhabit, then deepening their personalities beyond those basic traits.
ABC’s Speechless realized as much from the start. While its characters bear a loose resemblance to classic family sitcom tropes, Speechless immediately went a few steps further by imbuing them with much more specific characteristics and motivations. The freshman sitcom didn’t reinvent the sitcom family wheel so much as it pushed past its limitations to find something far more relatable than the usual formula ever could.
Speechless doesn’t abandon family tropes completely. Instead, it finds a way to make them three-dimensional.
Speechless follows the DiMeos as they try to settle into the latest in a long string of new townships. Their ranks include take-no-shit matriarch Maya (Minnie Driver), lackadaisical yes man dad Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), twitchy son Ray (Mason Cook), bully-adjacent daughter Dylan (Kyla Kenedy), and wry teen J.J. (Micah Fowler).
All these descriptions go hand in hand with the usual family sitcom clichés. In clumsier hands, Maya could easily be yet another high-strung wife, Jimmy another slob dad, Ray another anxious nerd. Instead, they’re all variations on these themes, even sometimes swerving in and out of each other’s lanes.
Another detail that sets the DiMeo family apart from any other on television is that J.J. has cerebral palsy; he uses a wheelchair, and because he’s non-verbal, speaks by directing a laser pointer at a word board that his family or his caregiver Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) reads aloud. It’s rare for any TV show to depict a character with a disability, let alone a family comedy. Rarer still is the fact that J.J. is played by Fowler, an actor who also has cerebral palsy. (The main difference between Fowler and his character is that J.J. has non-verbal cerebral-palsy, while Fowler can speak.)
But Speechless isn’t content to rest on its inclusive laurels. As created by Scott Silveri — a longtime Friends producer whose brother has cerebral palsy — the show is about a family that constantly has to fight for one of its own, and does so intensely and without question. It’s about Maya’s all-consuming love for her children and relentless drive to provide her family with the best, Jimmy’s bewildered affection for her and the kids, Dylan’s insatiable drive to win, Ray’s longing for some peace and quiet. It’s about J.J wanting to make friends and be a teen on the merits of his own personality without any pity parties being thrown in his “honor.”
Every single one of the DiMeos is just as funny as they are flawed.
The DiMeos’s flaws only make them more appealing
Maya’s quest to make J.J.’s life the best it can be usually involves a scorched earth approach; I pity anyone who fails her exacting standards. Oftentimes, that approach blinds her to what J.J. might actually want, which is usually to be included in his schoolmates’ activities because they want him there, not because they’re forced to socialize with the “wheelchair kid.”
Meanwhile, Jimmy only steps up when he absolutely has to. Ray and Dylan both struggle to balance love for their older brother with the guilt they feel over knowing their lives will never be as hard — and their resentment that J.J. almost always gets all the attention.
As for J.J. himself, he can be— especially when faced with well-meaning if condescending do-gooders — straight-up mean.
In fact, the DiMeos are all kind of mean, especially to any poor dumb-dumb who happens to blink at their enormous handicapped-accessible van; it’s no walk in the park to be the target of their disdain. But they’re all unfailingly loyal to each other, so tight-knit that they’ll run family drills to help J.J. practice his first kiss. (Yeah, it sounds weird, but in this cast’s hands, it’s a lot more endearing than creepy.) They’re a family that kind of hates everyone — except, of course, each other.
All the while, they all exist within those same family tropes we’ve seen a thousand and one times before: the take-no-shit mom, the give-no-shits dad, the nervous son, the competitive daughter, the teen who wants to be popular.
But on Speechless, they all find more of a personality beyond those basics. Their relationships with each other are layered and realistic, because they account for more than simply tolerating their differences. They accept and even embrace their imperfections, and they add levity with a shrug and a well-placed joke — which sounds a hell of a lot closer to a real family than so many of the boilerplate ones we’ve come to know so well on TV.