November 18, 2018

When your life becomes a sitcom

Even in this time of edgy Netflix binge-worthy shows and more cute cat videos to watch on YouTube than you could ever squeeze into a lifetime, network TV still reaches millions of Americans, and is able to exert a profound and powerful impact on our culture. For example, the No. 1 network show last year was NBC’s action thriller, “Blindspot,” which drew 7.5 million viewers on the night it aired, with another 5.1 million watching later on DVRs.

Historically, network television has played a key role in moving forward the collective American consciousness, such as the first interracial kiss on American TV, which took place on “Star Trek” back in 1968 between white Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Black Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols). And then there was Ellen DeGeneres, who, in 1997, came out as a lesbian on her sitcom, “Ellen,” taking a huge risk with advertisers and audiences alike. Those shows, while entertaining us, helped many Americans to re-examine deeply held biases, gradually leading to changes in how Americans perceived interracial couples and homosexuals. 

Ever since our second child was diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP) in 1989, I’ve been waiting impatiently for Hollywood to create a popular film or TV series that would accurately show what life is really like for families such as ours. Even though most people don’t know much about CP, it is the most common childhood motor disability, affecting three live births out of every 1,000 in the United States. And yes, the son in AMC’s “Breaking Bad” had mild CP, which was groundbreaking in its own way, but the depiction of a chemistry teacher dad who turned into a murderous drug king is not exactly a shared experience of families raising a child with CP.

Finally, the show we’ve been waiting for is premiering Sept. 21 on ABC. “Speechless” is a sitcom, helmed by executive producer Scott Silveri, who previously produced “Friends,” “Perfect Couples” and, more recently, “Go On.” Silveri grew up with a brother with CP, and he has been wanting for some time to create a TV show that would accurately depict a family with a child with significant special needs. 

I attended a screening of the pilot last week on the Fox lot, joined by other disability community professionals and parent bloggers. We had the chance to talk with Silveri and actress Minnie Driver, who plays Maya DiMeo, the mother in the family, who is driven to be a strong and sometimes strident advocate for the oldest child, JJ, who is 16 and has non-verbal CP. Although JJ (played by Micah Fowler, who has a milder form of CP) can’t speak, he is able to communicate by spelling out words via an augmentation communication system that employs a laser pointer attached to his head and an electronic letter board. Other family members are a nebbishy father, Jimmy Dime (John Ross Bowie); an athletic younger sister, Dylan (Kyla Kenedy); and a wise-for-his years brother, Ray (Mason Cook), who appears to be the most negatively impacted family member as a result of all the extra attention and time given to JJ.

As the pilot opens, the family has just moved, once again, to be in a different school district, where JJ can finally be fully mainstreamed in a regular classroom accompanied by a full-time aide who can be his “voice.” Ray isn’t happy with the move, as he was just getting adjusted at the old school. In one exchange with his mother, she tells Ray she’s proud to be a strong advocate for JJ: “Your brother got the right mum,” she says in her cheery British accent, to which Ray replies, “Yes, he did, but I didn’t.”

Some of my favorite moments in the pilot are when people outside the family go overboard in their political correctness and engage in cringe-worthy behavior, such as when JJ and his new aide, an annoyingly chirpy woman who is clearly not a good match for him, arrive in his new classroom for the first time. At their teacher’s prompting, all of the students begin to clap and stand up, much to the chagrin of JJ, who types out, “Why are they doing this? They don’t even know me.”

There were times when it felt like someone had planted a camera in our home to help write the script, but there was also the inevitable Hollywood treatment of the family. For the scene when Maya has a big confrontation with the school’s principal about getting a disabled ramp built in front of the school instead of making JJ use the trash removal ramp at the back, she wears a cute ensemble, every hair is in place, and she’s got on a full face of makeup. Not my reality. 

I asked Minnie Driver about this after the screening, and she laughed, agreeing that she would have liked to look more natural, but she did say that she made sure the wardrobe department didn’t supply her with designer clothes for that scene. Despite the glossing over of some of the grittier aspects of what this family’s life would really be like, “Speechless” nonetheless accurately captures the tone and texture of families in similar situations, and I hope millions of people will watch it and laugh “with the family, not at the family,” as Driver said afterward.

As life would have it, later that same day I got word that due to a clerical error, the Los Angeles Unified School District had plans to transfer our son’s aide of 10 years to another campus during his final semester of high school. After 18 years of dealing with special education bureaucracy, I wasn’t sure I had another fight left in me. But then I channeled my inner Minnie Driver, and started making the necessary calls and sending out emails, which eventually led to a reversal of the decision. Sometimes life imitates art, and sometimes it’s the other way around.


“Speechless” premieres Sept. 21 at 8:30 p.m.