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Why ‘Speechless’ Creator Didn’t Set Out to Depict Disability ‘Writ Large’

Variety logo Variety 5/10/2017 JD Knapp
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The DiMeo family looked particularly well put together as they prepare to walk the Paley Center for Media purple carpet. It was a Tuesday night in Beverly Hills, and the cast and crew of “Speechless” were celebrating the penultimate episode of their debut season with a screening and subsequent panel, moderated by Variety‘s own Debra Birnbaum.

While fans of the freshest face on ABC’s Wednesday night comedy lineup were already well aware of the chemistry between stars Minnie Driver, John Ross Bowie, Micah Fowler, Mason Cook, Kyla Kenedy and Cedric Yarbrough — that’s CEE-drik, not Ceh-drik — seeing them interact in person was certainly something to write home about. The cast is already operating as a unit, said series creator Scott Silveri.

“They’re not dysfunctional … ” Silveri began, only to have Driver finish his sentence. “… the family works perfectly,” she asserted. This familial-level of banter persisted through the entire panel, which also featured executive producers Melvin Mar and Jake Kasdan. “These guys are flukes. Child actors are a real crapshoot,” joked Bowie about his trio of onscreen children. “I was born in a lab,” Cook retorted, clearly already learning a thing or two from his TV father.

But is it this natural bond that makes “Speechless” — a sitcom centered around a family that happens to include a son with cerebral palsy — enjoyable to a wide audience?

“First and foremost, it’s just funny – that’s why people love the show,” Yarbrough said. “And because it’s a family. It’s not anything other than what you see with a ‘typical family’ – mom, dad, a neighbor who also cares for the kids, and then the kids. So all those elements are all there, just like your Beaver Cleaver, ‘The Cosby Show,’ just in a different kind of category.”

Kenedy added, “You laugh and you cry when you watch this show, because it’s real life. You feel the emotions that everyone feels.”

Those emotions allowed Driver to instantly connect to her character to when deciding to take on matriarch Maya DiMeo. “She’s like a real person, she’s awful and she’s great,” Driver said with a smile. “But it really bothers me the notion of dislikable women. It’s absolute bollocks, because women are just people. People being difficult, and awful, and rude, and kind, and funny, and sad – she had a lot of dimensions, and the family had a lot of dimensions.”

Dimensions which Silveri did not want to bog down by focusing solely on CP. “I didn’t set out to depict disability writ large – that’s not my goal, and that’s too big of a responsibility for us. I just wanted to talk about this one family,” Silveri said. “But I remained mindful of the things I did want to depict: Us against the world, we’re different, and we’re not going to apologize for it. In fact, we think we’re a little better for it.”

Fowler seems to share the sentiment. “The disabled community can see to always go after your dreams and to always conquer any challenge that comes your way,” Fowler said of his groundbreaking character, J.J.

The “Speechless” season finale is scheduled to air May 17.

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