ABC Has a Great Sitcom About White Working Class American Struggles: It’s Called ‘Speechless’
Throughout the many conversations surrounding the ABC revival of Roseanne, there have been myriad issues that audiences and critics alike must confront. Between issues of art versus artist, the stoking of bigoted fires and the whitewashing of critical history, it’s been hard to discuss the show as its own entity, although one would also argue that to do so would be a shocking disservice to everyone. Critics better than I have dissected their difficult emotions on the subject, including our own Dustin, and I would urge you to read those voices who are doing the tough work.
Yet there is one issue that continues to boggle my mind. ABC have made a point of emphasizing how this new age of Roseanne is part of their post-Trump election outreach strategy. The network is keen to appeal to those frequently under-served audiences, those who do not fit into the stereotype of the coastal resident or upper-middle class city dweller we so often see in mainstream sitcoms. In an abstract sense, this is a good idea. Culture thrives when it tells those maligned stories, and the working-class struggle is not one that’s been widely depicted on television with any real sense of accuracy or understanding. At least, that’s how the narrative goes. Roseanne was the game-changer, we hear, and there’s been nothing like it since. ABC have been eager to focus on this notion that Roseanne is a lone wolf in the crowded pack, and that bringing it back fulfills a niche they, and others, have not dealt with.
What’s been especially odd about this willfully blind reading from ABC is that this network is home to some of American TV’s most interesting and challenging sitcoms. You want to remind them of the existence of their own comedy line-up. Black-ish remains at the top of its game while Fresh off the Boat has moved from strength to strength. Say what you want about Modern Family but it’s done its job with incredible zeal and audiences remain loyal to it.
But then, we’re told, that doesn’t count that ‘working class’ struggle that Roseanne fulfilled. So, you point out the existence of shows like FX’s Atlanta, a ground-breaking and truly daring comedy by Donald Glover that deals potently with issues surrounding low pay and poverty in a way TV hasn’t seen before. You remind them of Netflix’s glorious reboot of One Day at a Time, arguably the Trump era family comedy in how it brings a unique twist to working class depictions and the intersections of Cuban-American life in the traditional mould of the sitcom.
But then that voice says it again - they want the ‘real’ working class comedy. The ‘real’, of course, meaning ‘white’. Still, you point back to ABC and The Middle, and it isn’t enough. As this entire conversation winds around to nowhere, you wonder if ABC are even aware that the best network sitcom about white working-class family life in the 21st century is already on their schedule. It’s called Speechless and it is wonderful.
With its second season wrapping up last month, Speechless has easily proven itself to be one of the sharpest pieces of programming ABC has to offer. Created by Scott Silveri, a former Friends producer and writer, the show takes inspiration from his own life and late brother. The DiMeo family, headed by the no-bullshit matriarch Maya (Minnie Driver), move into an upscale part of town so that they can send their eldest son JJ to a new school. JJ (Micah Fowler), who has a non-verbal form of cerebral palsy, will be granted a speaking aide at this school, which prides itself on its inclusivity. The other kids in the family aren’t wild about the prospect, especially since the move means they have to live in the most rundown and squalid house in a supposedly good neighbourhood.
It’s super rare to see network TV deal with issues of disability, and even less so with disabled actors in those roles. Fowler himself has cerebral palsy, and that combined with Silveri’s own experiences give the show an authenticity and bluntness that simply can’t be replicated by those who don’t get it. JJ is bright, sarcastic, willing to milk his situation for the occasional benefit, and has no tolerance for people trying to use him as an inspirational trophy (Fowler has some of the sharpest coming timing on TV, with perhaps the best stink-eye in the game). Most importantly, he’s an actual character, with storylines that reflect his life as a disabled guy but aren’t exclusively about that. He is loveable and loved and the show doesn’t slide around how difficult and costly it is for any family to have a disabled son.
Their crumbling house has narrow doorways his chair can get stuck in, there are certain things their insurance won’t cover him for, there are places he can’t go because there aren’t ramps or proper access. Even without JJ, the DiMeos struggle in major ways. They resort to stealing discarded stuff from sidewalks (which the father Jimmy, played with laidback charm by John Ross Bowie, not so secretly loves), their van looks like it was lifted from a bomb site, and other families are quick to judge them for their lives. Being poor is hard, and the DiMeo clan show the day-to-day struggle of that, as well as the ways it forces you to build up shields. Roseanne gets a lot of credit for its refusal to cloak poverty in noble terms. Nobody suffers silently in the Conner clan, and sometimes they laugh in the face of such concern. There’s a lot of that in Speechless, but it’s more relaxed. As explained by Jimmy in one of the first season’s best moments, none of the world’s bullshit matters when you’ve survived as long as they have.
The specificity of Speechless is where it truly succeeds. It’s not just a show about a disabled character: It’s a show that digs hard into the strange, depressing, and often funny ways the world thinks it treats disabled people better than it does. JJ’s school brags about its diversity, but frequently can’t comprehend how their students are capable of making their own decisions about their welfare. Maya is a devoted mother to JJ but often at the expense of her other two kids, and she is forced to confront this problem as well as the ways she’s created her entire personality around being the mother of a disabled son. The family have to jump through ridiculous hoops just to get the necessities in life for JJ, like a working wheelchair. The wonderful Kristen Lopez wrote about the show on this front for Paste, which you should definitely read. There’s no nobility in being poor here; the jokes are part of the frustration, but also the reality of just being like everyone else you see on TV in so many ways. I’m surprised Roseanne didn’t make a joke about that. Then again, this is a white working-class family.
You could treat Speechless as a teachable TV moment, and you’d certainly learn a lot. You could watch it in lieu of other comedies that insist only they know the real experience of being poor and trodden upon in American life, and that would be fair. Yet you should watch Speechless first and foremost because it’s great TV, beautifully constructed and accomplished in ways the cultural landscape is still lagging behind in. ABC could use the reminder that they’re home to such great work, and that it should be given appropriate attention should they wish to continue telling the world they’re serious about their current endeavours. Let’s be honest, we know what ABC really mean when they make those claims, and Speechless doesn’t meet their criteria. That may be what makes it truly wonderful. Of course, it’s also funny as hell.
(Header image from YouTube)
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