Com­pellingly cast ‘Speechless’ has quite a bit to say

Min­nie Driver heads up a unique fam­ily com­edy

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - LIFE - Maya (Min­nie Driver, right) is mother to Dy­lan (Kyla Kenedy), Ray (Ma­son Cook) and J.J. (Micah Fowler) in

Talk about what you know.

Some­times mis­tak­enly used as a weapon to blunt cre­ativ­ity, the old ad­mo­ni­tion to write what you know is bet­ter seen as a means of en­cour­age­ment, urg­ing au­thors who find them­selves stuck for an idea to dig deeper into their mem­o­ries, their ex­pe­ri­ence and their in­ter­ests. Yes, the risk is that you’ll wind up with la­bo­ri­ous navel-gaz­ing, but the re­ward can be a show like ABC’s Speechless (Wed­nes­day, 8:30 ET/PT, eeeg out of four), eas­ily the best of the new net­work sit­coms.

The cre­ator here is Friends writer Scott Sil­veri, who based this show — about a gutsy mother fight­ing tooth and nail for her son, who has cere­bral palsy — on his own fam­ily. Nor is Sil­veri’s the only au­then­tic voice: The show ben­e­fits im­mea­sur­ably by hav­ing that boy played by Micah Fowler, an ac­tor who has the neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­der. It’s a sweet, skill­ful and some­times poignant per­for­mance, and it’s more than good enough to dis­pel any con­cerns that this land­mark cast­ing might just be a stunt.

It’s a good thing Fowler is a charis­matic per­former, be­cause he’s up against a pow­er­house in Min­nie Driver, mak­ing the most of her best TV role yet as Maya DiMeo. To be sure, Fowler’s J.J. is not Maya’s only charge: She has two other chil­dren (Ma­son Cook and Kyla Kenedy) and a sup­port­ive if some­times skep­ti­cal hus­band (The Big Bang The­ory’s John Ross Bowie). But her con­sid­er­able en­ergy is poured into get­ting J.J. the help he needs from a sys­tem that is of­ten re­luc­tant to sup­ply it.

In Wed­nes­day’s opener, that means mov­ing the fam­ily into a truly hor­ri­ble house (one of the show’s fun­nier bits), just so J.J. can go to a school with an aide who can give him a voice. No one else in the fam­ily, how­ever, is con­vinced this is a good idea — in­clud­ing J.J., who hates the voice he has been given. Luck­ily, help may be on the way in the form of one of the few peo­ple who can stand up to Maya: the school’s groundskeeper, Ken­neth (a very nice turn from Cedric Yar­brough).

On pa­per, none of this sounds par­tic­u­larly comic. In­deed, you can see how, in other hands, the same story could pro­vide in­spi­ra­tion for a sear­ing fam­ily drama. But Sil­veri finds a sweet spot, min­ing laughs out of Maya’s bull­dozer en­thu­si­asm and J.J.’s be­mused per­se­ver­ance with­out short­chang­ing the prob­lems both of them face.

It helps to have a great cast. Given a role that uses her some­times over­size screen pres­ence to its best ad­van­tage, Driver shines, charms and ap­pro­pri­ately hor­ri­fies.

And play­ing op­po­site her, Bowie puts an in­ter­est­ing twist on a role that could have faded into the back­ground: a good fa­ther who, in his own way, is as off-kil­ter as his wife. You just leave with the feel­ing that th­ese are peo­ple Sil­veri likes and knows well.

And a fam­ily that we’ll all want to know bet­ter.

NI­COLE WILDER, ABC

Speechless.

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