There's a fairly common understanding in the comedy world that "political correctness" — or the simple act of taking care to not actively insult marginalized groups or people — is killing comedy. The argument seems to be that "PC culture" is out of control, censoring any kind of joke at someone else's expense, and thus it must be done away with entirely.
Of course, that argument is hogwash. If comedy as a form relies on punching down, of making fun of the easiest possible targets, it's not a very strong form. But one new comedy this fall recognizes that marginalized groups are incredibly funny — and punching down isn't the only way to get a laugh. That show is ABC's Speechless.
Speechless' central family, the DiMeos, are a twist on your average American clan. Mom Maya (Minnie Driver) is British; son Ray (Mason Cook) is more of an adult than either of his parents; and son J.J. (Micah Fowler) has cerebral palsy and is the titular "speechless" character.
But, one day in the DiMeos' life, things change. Maya, who exerts most of her energy taking care of J.J. or raging at those who would seek to encumber him, finds the perfect situation for her son. She moves her family to a new house in a new, ritzier school district, where J.J. can move out of special ed classes and have an aide who will speak for him.
The pilot episode, which aired Sept. 21, did a remarkably efficient job of setting up the DiMeo family dynamics — dad Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) is the chill counterpart to Maya's hard-charging self, while the kids, Ray, J.J. and Dylan (Kyla Kennedy) each have specific personality traits that flesh them out beyond their stereotypical roles.
Fowler is particularly great as J.J., playing the boy as mischievous and ingenious in equal measure. Speechless pokes fun at the idea of this new, socially progressive school fawning over J.J. because of his disability (before they even meet him, teachers and students want J.J. to be student body president). J.J., to the show and Fowler's credit, calls that for the bullshit it is.
Speechless knows what kind of show the average viewer will think it is — inclusive, sensitive and, yes, "politically correct" — but it's far cleverer than that. Creator Scott Silveri and his team subvert the expected at every turn, making Speechless, at least in its premiere, easily the funniest show of the fall.
Is it a perfect pilot? No. There's an odd moment where Maya argues with J.J.'s new aide, Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) after he uses the word "cripple." Kenneth's counterargument is that, as a black man, he's seen a lot of discrimination, and he won't be talked down to about it. It's the one time in the episode that Maya backs down, and it doesn't feel earned. Facing prejudice is not an excuse for contributing to prejudice, and Speechless doesn't do much to argue against that line of thinking.
It's redeeming, however, to see Kenneth bond with J.J. and become his voice. That's the best thing about Speechless, really: It recognizes that no matter our lot in life, we're all just people trying to do our best and laugh along the way.
Speechless airs its second episode Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. Eastern. The premiere is available to watch on Hulu and on ABC's website.