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ABC's Speechless does a radical thing for families of characters with disabilities: it lets them have fun

The family sitcom threw an Oscars party unlike any other on TV.

Kenneth (Cedric Yarborough) and JJ (Micah Fowler) know how to have a good time
ABC

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for February 18 through 25 is “O-S OSCAR P-A PARTY,” the 16th episode of season one of ABC’s Speechless.

On the one hand, an ABC sitcom building an entire episode around an Oscars viewing party the week ABC is set to broadcast the Oscars is a little on the nose. On the other, Speechless has so consistently found new ways to tell the usual family sitcom stories that it seems highly unlikely that a corporate mandate could’ve reigned in its personality — and lo, it did not.

Within its first few episodes, Speechless quickly settled into a rhythm all its own, and has only grown more comfortable in its own skin since. The show’s singular quality is partly attributable to the fact that one of the DiMeo kids is JJ (Micah Fowler), a teen with nonverbal cerebral palsy who communicates through a laser pointer, a board of letters and phrases, and his aide, Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough). But the best thing Speechless does is give JJ and his loyal family a wicked sense of humor to help deal with the perpetual challenges they face. As JJ’s mother Maya (Minnie Driver) would put it, it’s the DiMeos versus the world, and they’re not about to take shit from anyone.

In that spirit, “O-S OSCAR P-A PARTY” may not be a particularly splashy episode of television in and of itself, but it is a particularly good example of how Speechless finds jokes and depth in seemingly simple situations in a way no other family sitcom out there right now can.

Speechless is all about letting its star have the time of his life

As befits a family-friendly sitcom, the subplots of the “O-S OSCAR P-A PARTY” that the DiMeos throw for other kids with disabilities and their families are aggressively silly. There’s middle kid Ray (Mason Cook) trying to impress a free-spirited girl who models her decisions after the Manic Pixie Dream Girls she sees in movies. And there’s JJ and Kenneth getting competitive over a movie trivia game.

But that trivia game quickly becomes about something else entirely. It takes approximately three seconds for Kenneth to realize that reading a question and shouting out the answer simply isn’t something JJ can do. So he keeps adjusting their games to be more inclusive of JJ’s needs, both because it’s the decent thing to do and because it’s the kind of puzzle he genuinely likes solving. Also, he gets to be the hero when it works out, which is always a plus.

The situation, however, escalates. Kenneth has to improvise in a big way once the other kids at the party want to join in, and he does ultimately manage to make the game work for everyone and all their different needs. But when the kids end up fighting, Kenneth rises nobly to the challenge of finding a safe and fun way to… well, let the kids at each other’s throats, leading to an unlikely free-for-all brawl.

It is, as mentioned above, very silly. But throwing JJ into an exuberant play battle is also the kind of ridiculous sidebar story TV rarely lets characters with disabilities have without tying it up in some saccharine bow. Speechless would rather just let them have fun.

“O-S OSCAR P-A PARTY” frankly acknowledges parental struggles in perfectly Speechless fashion

Maya (Minnie Driver) holds court
ABC

Maya and Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) are parents of a teenager whose life is inherently more complicated than those of the non-disabled kids jostling by him in his high school hallways. Maya responds to the ensuing challenges with fierce protectiveness, teeth bared and ready to pounce on anyone who dares get in JJ’s way. Jimmy, meanwhile, plays the part of the patient mediator who makes sure the everyday gears of the DiMeo family are running smoothly.

With “O-S OSCAR P-A PARTY,” Speechless does throw an Oscars party, but more so tackles the issue of how parents interact with and support each other — and how that dynamic is intrinsically different between parents who are taking care of children with disabilities. And so the episode plays with the roles Maya and Jimmy play in the family by introducing a whole other set of families that, like the DiMeos, include a child with a disability.

There’s Maya’s support group of mothers, all exhausted but determined to be the best caretakers their children could have. It’s no surprise that Maya — as played by the very sharp Driver — is their de-facto queen bee, but it is surprising when a new mom (the always welcome Michaela Watkins) joins in and manages to intimidate her with an excess of meticulous perkiness.

If this mom can help manage her child’s disability and maintain a flawless Pinterest lifestyle, Maya muses with growing horror, is her own brand of chaos a form of laziness? Is she not the super mom she takes such pride in being?

Eventually, as per sitcom standards, the two hash it out and come to realize that they’re both just trying to get by in their own particular ways, and turning on each other isn’t the answer. But the road to getting there is fraught with very real insecurities, the kind that don’t quite go away just because the end credits start rolling.

While the moms try to out-mom each other, Jimmy’s sucking it up and hanging with the dads. He doesn’t have quite the same camaraderie with the fathers, who in this episode all play bland support systems to the wives who get shit done. But Jimmy soon finds a way to appreciate them anyway, namely giving them household tasks to do by insisting that their wives would really appreciate it. (Jimmy is, as are all the DiMeos, a lovable sort of jerk.) He does eventually realize that they all have personalities that are taking a backseat to their families, and unleashes them all in a flurry of hedonistic joy.

Parents wanting to find a social circle outside the one sitting around their family dinner table is a rich story area in and of itself. For parents of a child with a disability it’s a whole other ballgame with its own dynamics and hardships I can’t pretend to know. But the way Speechless manages to explore those complications while keeping its characters flawed and very funny is exactly why it’s become a show well worth watching.

Speechless airs Wednesdays at 8:30 pm EST on ABC. Previous episodes are available to stream on Hulu and ABC.com.