“Writers like to work in a little box; this is a fun little puzzle for us,” Speechless creator/EP Scott Silveri told journalists today at TCA of his new ABC comedy about fierce mom Maya DiMeo, whose three children include a non-verbal special needs son.
“I have been doing romantic comedies for so many years” – 20 years of writing about juggling multiple girlfriends, a lot of first dates, and a lot of breakup scenes. But he had never, until Speechless, written a scene in which a child who is non-verbal goes into a new classroom and becomes confused. ‘It has been one of the joys so far of doing this show, working in that uncharted territory,” he explained of the series that had been described as ABC’s hottest comedy plot last spring.
“For me, it was a question of writing what you know. I came from a family with a brother with special needs…I worked with different versions of it over the years,” he explained.
It was particularly challenging to dodge the “Afterschool Special” trap, Silveri said, noting that the special needs community refers to a thing called “inspirational porn.”
“We were very aware of the trope, and wanted to avoid it as much as possible,” he said, explaining that’s why the series starts with a car chase, eschewing “navel gazing, and sitting around and ‘woe is me’-ing” in the show because “that’s not what the experience is.”
“Nor is it a lot of, ‘Aren’t we just so lucky look at the lesson we’ve learned today based on this young man’s situation’,” he added. “There are moments of humanity, and of silliness, and we try to move quickly through both.”
Minnie Driver, who plays JJ DiMeo’s force-of-nature mom, Maya, said there has been a “high degree of difficulty to pull off this particular character because she can be so off-putting. She sees the name of the show as a reference not only to JJ’s “non verbal situation” but also to the frequency with which Maya “renders people speechless with the stuff she says.”
To that point, Driver plays the role with her native British accent because “the real truth is, you can get away with a lot more when you speak with a British accent,” she said. “You can say very rude things and make them sound charming. And you can offend people, and they will smile at you, and only subsequently realize how offensive you were,” she smiled. “In looking at this picture here, of raggle taggle individuals, it’s one of her differentials, and I think it’s good.”
Besides, Driver said, “seeing English people get angry is always funny.”
Cedric Yarbrough, who plays JJ’s aide Kenneth in the series, said he told producers “I really wanted to stay away from someone who could be a savior of some sort, and be able to fix everything” for the family. “We were talking about this term, the Magical Negro, who comes in and fixes everything, the Bagger Vance, knows all. I wanted to make sure this guy doesn’t know much of anything; he’s going to make mistakes, with the family, with the kid,” but has a good heart.
Micah Fowler, who plays JJ, and who, as ABC describes “lives every day conquering the challenges brought on by cerebral palsy, made his TV debut at age nine on an episode of Blue’s Clues, and appeared in several episodes of Sesame Street. But he may be best known for his 2013 film debut, at age 15, playing Barry in Jason Reitman’s Labor Day opposite Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. “I always wanted to be an actor, deep inside. I always wanted to perform,” he said today.