This is the fifth—and final—installment in our series examining the intersections of education and entertainment in 2016. Read previous entries on a documentary, late-night comedy, a play, and animated movies.
If the national conversation was somehow lacking an entertaining indictment of school hallways filled with hollow calls for inclusivity, the ABC sitcom Speechless certainly fills the void. The Scott Silveri show is notable not only because—as David Perry wrote for The Atlantic in September—it centers around a character and an actor with a disability, but also because its satirical take on what an open and welcoming academic community looks like is particularly poignant in 2016.
Students and teachers at the fictional Lafayette High School were very excited for its newest pupil, J.J. DiMeo (Micah Fowler) who has cerebral palsy, to arrive. And they wanted the DiMeo family to be completely sure of this excitement. The principal tells the DiMeos about an inclusivity-themed assembly planned for the afternoon of his first day; an entire classroom applauds J.J. when he shows up to learn; and one student (whose “cousin is deaf, so he gets it”) presents him with a giant poster that reads “J.J. for president.” These gestures, though ostensibly well-intentioned, are forced to the point of discomfort. Everyone in the California-based high school is so busy telling J.J. he’s welcome that at first, they turn him into a spectacle, and the spotlight is searing.
From the very start of the show, it is deliberately clear that, for all their calls for a welcoming and open environment, the students and teachers of J.J.’s new high school struggle to implement the integration they’re so passionate about. The principal is overwhelmingly supportive of the DiMeos nominally, but when Maya DiMeo (Minnie Driver)—J.J.’s loving and exceedingly overbearing mother—expresses frustration that the wheelchair ramp her son is using is made for garbage, the administrator is, well, Speechless. And, when the school throws an underwhelming bonfire in the gymnasium because the beach version wasn’t wheelchair accessible, the reasonably disappointed students ultimately decide, after an open conversation, that they should be mad at J.J. for ruining this rite of passage; after all, wouldn’t they blame any other student for the turn of events? Isn’t it the friendly and fair thing to single out J.J.?
Much like many conversations about inclusivity that actually happen in America’s schools, these actions grasp desperately at sincerity. But ultimately, they’re stilted. They’re awkward. And they’re obvious. Speechless—with its participation trophies and excessive praise for mediocre work—takes the trope of liberal Californians’ commitment to accessible safe spaces to its logical extreme. And if you’ve read even one story about coddled millennials working to make sure everyone feels welcome, you’ll recognize the smug side-eye glance Speechless pays to this line of rhetoric and those who criticize it.
Additionally, the fictional high school is so over-the-top with its acceptance of J.J. that the characters’ deliberate obliviousness to the school’s racial homogeneity is equally as present in every episode. J.J.’s aide, Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough), is the only character of color in the main cast, and viewers will struggle to find a non-white student in Lafayette’s hallways. When Kenneth deliberately points out his blackness, other characters do not respond. Instead, Kenneth’s race is only addressed when he and J.J. become “inspirations” for strangers wondering “who’s really helping who?” Though J.J.’s classmates and teachers work to create a legitimately welcoming atmosphere for him, their ignorance of the school’s racial exclusivity is all the more damning and contemporarily relevant.
The show’s acknowledgement of these ironies is deliberate and omnipresent but never crass nor mean spirited. For all the overwrought ink spilled on the hypersensitivity of college campuses and the narratives of inclusivity that dominate politics, Speechless is remarkable in how relevant its portrayals of diversity efforts feel. The behaviors of the school’s characters in the show are incredibly cliche, but that’s precisely the point. In what is a very played-out Hollywood trope, Speechless presents viewers with the chance to decide what a “normal” high-school experience is in practically every scene. But alongside that determination is the insistence that the audience examine who they may have left out in conceptualizing that normality.
Ultimately, Speechless is a comedy that elicits more knowing smirks than side-splitting moments. The calls for openness do feel genuine in the end, even if a hallway full of teens cheering on inclusivity is forcibly over-the-top. At first, it seems as if the characters are only interested in inclusivity when it’s convenient. However, not once does the show allow anyone to “save” J.J.; there is no need for a nice kid to bravely rescue him from bullies. J.J. and his disability are at the center of the show, and the program’s parody of politically correct progressivism is appropriately snide. And yet, in a polarized environment, the organic friendships J.J. cultivates with his classmates are honest, heartwarming, and, put into conversation with contemporary issues of integration and equality, tragically wistful.