The voice of reason
Minnie Driver stars as the mum of a child with special needs in Speechless, a sitcom with purpose, empathy – and lots of humour in adversity, which starts on OSN Series Comedy HD on Monday, writes Greg Kennedy
Living with cerebral palsy is no picnic, which makes it all the more amazing how Speechless – a new hit sitcom starring Minnie Driver ( Good Will Hunting, The Riches) as the fiercely protective mother of a non-verbal son – spins such a serious premise into family fun, heart and hilarity as sweet as candy floss.
During its 23- episode first season on American TV network ABC, which ended last week, the series, which begins on Monday on OSN First Comedy HD, quickly became a darling with viewers and critics, earning a 98 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Driver stars as Maya DiMeo, a British mum on a mission who will do anything for her family, displaying a brassy personality that could intimidate mountains into moving. When we first meet her, she is moving her family into the most dilapidated house in an upscale American neighbourhood to get her eldest son, J J – who communicates using headgear with a laser pointer to indicate words, letters and numbers on a board – into a better school.
“I’m sick of seeing disabled people, people with special needs – whatever the verbiage is you choose to use – depicted as people who can’t wait to die and want to get away from it,” says Driver. “It’s awful. These are robust, amazing lives that need to be celebrated. They need to have a laugh, God knows.” The breakout star is Micah Fowler, who portrays J J. He has the same condition as his character, though he can speak, haltingly, but clearly. The 19-year-old is helping to break new ground for special-needs actors, following on from the work of actor R J Mitte, who also has cerebral palsy, as Walt Jr in Breaking Bad. “All you have to do is just come and get to know us ... and we are just like anybody else,” says Fowler.
The show treads a fine line, generating humour without ever being mawkish or offensive – and Fowler wrings huge laughs out of the tiniest of facial movements.
“It was tough at the beginning,” he says. “This role made me a better actor because I have to use facial expressions – and [be funny] too.”
Driver is full of praise for her onscreen son. “He’s a magic actor,” she says. “Funny. Sly – I think people are going to fall in love with him. Micah’s body has some challenges, but his mind is beautiful and amazing and sharp. He himself is full of alacrity and humour.” While having an amazing warrior mother might benefit J J, the daily dramas that ensue can be trying for other members of the family, including Maya’s husband Jimmy. He is played, sympathetically, by John Ross Bowie, previously best-known as the less-than-likeable Barry Kripke, Sheldon’s scientist nemesis on The Big Bang Theory.
“You fight and fight to make sure J J has a normal life,” Jimmy tells Maya, “but maybe he’s not the only one who deserves that”.
This is a clear reference to what he perceives as her neglect of their other children, Ray (Mason Cook), a scholarly middle child who acts as the “brains” in the family, and Dylan (former The Walking Dead star Kyla Kenedy), their nononsense athletic daughter. Jimmy’s saving grace and strength as the family’s pillar is that he doesn’t seem to care what other people think. In a poignant father-son moment, he confides in Ray: “All this stuff ... other people’s opinions, it’s nothing. You know what’s not nothing? It’s when the doctor tells you there’s something wrong with your kid. All the things he’s never going to do – and it’s a nice, long list.”
“My dad wrote that,” says series creator and showrunner Scott Silveri ( Friends), who loosely based Speechless on his own upbringing. “He’s not a poet or anything, but a guy whose experience really crafted his world view. As long as I’ve been doing this for a living, I’ve been wanting to depict a family like the one I grew up in, with somebody who is a little bit different.
“I wish we had more speeches like [my dad’s we could use],” he adds with a laugh. “We had 23 episodes to fill.”
It can’t be easy to be the heart of a hit TV show in a wheelchair, without words, relying totally on physicality – let alone do it as well as Fowler – but his winning attitude says it all. “I choose to do my very best,” he says.
begins on Monday at 8pm on OSN Series Comedy HD
From left, Kyla Kennedy, Mason Cook, Micah Fowler and Minnie Driver star in the sitcom Speechless.