There’s a theory that all it takes to establish a successful comedy block is one solid half-hour offering that can then move into syndication, amass a huge following and eventually help launch several other series. ABC cracked that formula back in 2009 when it launched “Modern Family,” effectively establishing itself as the go-to network for a new wave of family comedies.
Yet rather than rely on tried-and-true fare, the network went a new way in soliciting diverse voices to round out the schedule. “Fresh Off the Boat,” “black-ish,” the period-comedy “The Goldbergs” and last season’s addition about a gay high school kid and his Christian family, “The Real O’Neals” – each brought something different to the schedule.
Each of those offerings have been successful because they follow a family that’s relatable but representative, stars notable cast-members and aren’t afraid to tackle tough issues every once in a while (this past season’s racial-profiling episode of “black-ish,” for example).
This fall, ABC is hoping to keep the formula intact on Wednesday nights with the new Minnie Driver-led “Speechless.” The series revolves around a wife and mother-of-three who often serves as the voice for her son J.J. (Micah Fowler), a teen whose special needs has him in a wheelchair without the ability to speak.
Like some of these other series, “Speechless” does a great job of educating the audience at the outset through Driver’s monologues and heartfelt scenes without ever being cruel or poking fun at the situation itself. Sure, this is situational comedy, but the family faces the same kinds of comedic set ups (moving, a new school) as any other family would. They just deal and react to those beats within their own terms, making it a fresh take from other family fare.
At times Driver’s character can be a bit much, a “smother” to invoke “The Goldbergs'” terms. The actress jumps into it headfirst which helps the original sale, but as she settles into the role she will have to adjust the tone in order to toe the line between endearing and annoying. That’s a problem most outlandish characters in comedy problems face, however, and it’s not a sticking point.
The real story here though is breakout star Fowler. For a kid who has minimal dialogue he has loads of star power thanks to fantastic facial expressions and giggle-worthy reaction shots. Jim Halpert’s camera stares have nothing on him (not that he’s ever breaking that fourth wall, but they’re that level of memorable). By the end of the pilot he’s paired with his new “voice” Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough), setting up a dynamic duo that should be lots of fun to watch in future episodes.
As it goes with most comedy pilots, there are a few kinks of course. It’s irritating how “special” the new school treats Fowler, although that’s also kind of the point. Other special circumstances, such as the police avoiding Driver’s character because “life’s too short” or the family getting the run of an amusement park in order to solve an internal conflict, however, are overkill.
In the end that won’t matter, since thanks to the aforementioned scheduling strategy, “Speechless” is all but guaranteed to be the Alphabet network’s next comedic hit. As such, the series will be awarded that rare comedic thing called time in order to work out those tonal issues, and hopefully develop into another must-see comedy representing a slice of the American life.
“Speechless” premieres Wednesday, Sept. 22 on ABC.