I’d like to take a moment here before I start this review to say that I appreciate when a series makes the effort to name their pilot episodes something other than “Pilot”—unless of course, the first episode of your show has something to do with an aviator of some sort (see: Lost). I suppose there is something to not naming your chickens before they get a full series order, but I find that I am more excited to watch a pilot that has an actual title and that probably is reflected in the way I review things, too.
Speechless‘s “P-I-PILOT” isn’t too large of a step away from the widely-used premiere title, but it definitely deserves credit for adding a twist to the classic to match the premise of the series. Even if you know nothing about the show, if you were given the series name along with the episode name I am pretty certain you’d be able to surmise the general nature of the sitcom I’m about to talk to you about.
So, let’s talk about “P-I-PILOT”.
While many family sitcoms tend to be centralized around the parents, the heart of Speechless is very clearly the two young boys, J.J. (Micah Fowler) and Ray Dimeo (Mason Cook). The characters of J.J. and Ray are given the most exploration in the pilot as we find that J.J. is a boy with cerebral palsy and the entire Dimeo family has been in constant upheaval as they try to find a school that can properly accommodate his needs while Ray is struggling to keep up as he has to say goodbye to hard-won friends every few months.
The two boys also have a younger sister named Dylan, but other than being an aggressively competitive little girl, she hasn’t had much development thrown her way at this point.
Instead, the supporting cast is rounded out primarily by the kids’ parents (Minnie Driver and John Ross Bowie), who are easily recognizable to anyone who has watched their share of family sitcoms as the fierce, overprotective mother and the more reserved, carefree father that have been used frequently over the years from shows like Roseanne to Modern Family to The Goldbergs.
The conflict in “P-I-PILOT” is clear: Maya and Jimmy Dimeo have struggled to make sure that each of their children’s needs have been met, but much of their energy has been put into making sure that J.J. has all of the care that he needs to get the most out of his education. As we join the Dimeo clan, they have left their old home so that J.J. can attend a school where he will have a full-time aide to be his voice to the rest of the world and that means moving into a run-down home next to the train tracks—leaving their old friendships behind.
I’m sure they’ll come around to it in no time, though.
I wasn’t expecting a lot from Speechless, but it really surprised me early on and continued to do so for the remainder of the pilot. The first episode did a wonderful job establishing the family members and their relationships with each other (minus the daughter) and those around them within a short period of time. It might be that I feel like I’ve seen some of these relationships and characters explored before in other sitcoms, but I came out of the first half-hour of the show feeling like I knew quite a bit about each character.
I was also pleasantly surprised to see the likes of Jay Chandrasekhar and Jonathan Slavin as teachers at the new school the Dimeo kids are attending. I do hope we get to spend more time with them in the coming episodes.
I am certain by the end of the first season of Speechless the Dimeo family will be settled in to their new living conditions, maybe enough so that they will have to sell their mother on staying in their new home rather than returning to their old one—essentially flipping the tables on the conflict of the pilot episode.
Speechless may have the outward appearance of another low-effort sitcom exploring familiar situations under the lens of a different family dynamic, but what I found was something that possessed a mindfulness of character that isn’t usually present in the early episodes of most television show—sitcom or otherwise. These folks feel like a well-established family right out of the gate and none of them seem like a caricature made to fulfill specific tropes throughout the course of the show.
I might be calling it a little early, but if you’re looking for the family sitcom of the season, I think you could do much worse than to give your time to Speechless and the Dimeo family.
If you’re interested in the series, Speechless airs Wednesdays on ABC. If you’d like to see what else Daniel is watching, you can check his Trakt page to keep up-to-date with all of his shows.