Monday, May 29, 2017

How Speechless Will Continue Giving Voice to Families with Special Needs

On May 17, ABC's family comedy Speechless finished a flawless first season, with a finale episode in which the DiMeo family flew across the country to deliver son JJ to camp.

ABC's Speechless stars, l-r:
John Ross Bowie, Mason Cook, Micah Fowler,
Kyla Kenedy, Cedric Yarbrough and Minnie Driver
at the Paley Center for Media, Beverly Hills
May 9, 2017
It was a great moment for each character:  for Micah Fowler's JJ, who gets to taste a first bit of independence; for siblings Ray and Dylan (Mason Cook and Kyla Kenedy) who experience their own firsts along the route; and for John Ross Bowie's Jimmy and particularly Minnie Driver's Maya, who learn they're going to have to start letting go of the disabled child they've protected all his life.

And as beautiful a bookend as this 23rd episode -- ABC likes the show so much that back in December, they ordered one extra installment for this first season -- was for the family we had come to care about, JJ's ability to survive summer camp certainly doesn't signal that the struggle is over.

Last month, on the eve of its upfront presentation, ABC officially renewed Speechless for a second season.  Just days before the official order, which everyone had anticipated, I attended an event celebrating the series at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, and caught up with the show's creator, Scott Silveri -- upon whose own family the DiMeos are loosely modeled -- to talk about what we can expect for season 2 and beyond.

Must-Hear TV:  So what have you thought about for season 2?  There obviously must be some family stories with which you probably frontloaded the series in season 1.  But are there still more personal stories you want to tell?

Speechless creator and Executive Producer,
Scott Silveri
Scott Silveri:  Yes, that’s the way to characterize it.  In the first season, you have to really concentrate on those dynamics between the [main characters] who are in the show every week.  And in the second season, hopefully people are familiar with them, and we can open it up a little more.  We can learn a little about where Minnie’s character came from, where John’s character came from, and have the kids have friends who are not paid aides [like Cedric Yarbrough's amazing Kenneth] or siblings.

But I think more than anything, it’s just not going to get easy for these guys.  Because that’s life, and that’s particularly this life.  You go to the right school, and then something changes.  You get the right aide, and then they go on to something else.  Life is like that.  But particularly for a family with someone with a disability, if you care about the care of the person you love, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment over and over again.

MHTV:  People change, and people move.

SS:  Exactly.  It’s not difficult to think of ways to make life hard for these guys!  And the joy is going to be in that struggle, and having them face it with a little bit of courage and some fun.

MHTV:  Have you pitched season 2 to ABC already?  For many shows, that’s what happens, pitching to network executives, "This is what our season would be, if we get renewed."

SS:  No!  Sometimes you do that, but we were not asked to, so… I think they know generally we’re going to open it up a little, to explore the next step for these guys.  JJ is a senior in high school.  What is his next step going to be?  And towards the end of the season, we really explored his independence, and his life away from his family a little bit.   Before that there had been none of that, and now we’re slowly rolling that out.  And I think it’s a natural spot for a lot more of that, which will be a challenge for him and a challenge for people who care for him.

MHTV:  When you said you would be "expanding" their world, obviously there’s a certain percentage of the main characters of season 1 that came right from your life, and other writers’ too.  But do you have auxiliary people in your mind, who were in the background of your real life, and now  you get to think, “THAT’s a good secondary character!”

SS:  Yes.  People I both want to celebrate, and to take down.  A healthy dose of both!  Celebrating people – how much fun is that?   I have some names of some administrators we’ve been sharpening the axe for for months – for years, actually!  We’ve got some Silveri grudges to settle.

MHTV:  It’s an Italian thing.  What percentage of season 1 is from real life for you?  In real life, your brother's disability is a little more pronounced than JJ's.

SS:  From my real life, it really wasn’t episode for episode.  There are shows that do that and do it well.  Like The Goldbergs do that, and there’s a lot of “this happened to me, my brother said this, my mom wore that.”  And that’s cool!  But that’s not how we chose to do it.  I found it particularly suffocating, frankly, to try simply to mimic things that had happened in my life.  I found it a lot more freeing when we changed who these people were, we put a couple of people together, and gave license to these guys to be characters rather than caricatures of my folks.

MHTV:  I would think it makes it easier to take a step back so you can fictionalize it without feeling weird about it, like an actor with a mask.

SS:  That’s it, precisely.

MHTV:  So JJ is not exactly your brother, and your mom is not British.

SS:  They have some overlap, but no.  And I’ve had my mom checked.  She’s not British.

MHTV:  So you did 23 and Me while she was sleeping?

SS:  Exactly.  I think there is a feeling that was important to convey.  These guys feel different, and take pride in being different.  No apologies.  In fact, sometimes we think we’re better than the other folks for being a little different.  There was that, and there was how they always coming back to their center, and form a unified front.  “It’s us against the world.”

But luckily that doesn’t happen too often.  But you have a choice in any given situation:  are you going to cry or are you going to laugh?  And my folks, God bless them, always chose to laugh.  So I thought that was something to be replicated, protected and celebrated.  The rest of it, the exact quirks and plot twists that our lives took, I didn’t feel the need to cling closely to that.  The vibe is what I wanted to protect.  And it’s been fun to get to do that.

MHTV:  In terms of tentpole events that might happen in season 2:  will JJ’s graduation be one of them, like at the end of the year?

SS:  I think that’s something to work towards.  And that’s such a big thing.  A lot of friends of mine who have disabilities bemoan the fact that there’s a lot of attention paid to children with disabilities --but once you grow up, there’s a little less of that.  There’s something adorable and cute and inspirational – which is a word that everybody hates – about a child, but then you don’t get quite the same attention and care as an adult.

MHTV:  "Good luck to you – and thanks for taking forever to get on the bus!"

SS:  Exactly!  So I think we’d like to explore that.  Because every time there’s been a challenge that has come up for the characters, we’ve tried to find a funny take on it. 

MHTV:  Non saccharine.  That’s what I appreciate.

SS:  We’re going to keep looking for these very real challenges, and it ain’t hard to find them.  And turn them into opportunities for this family to bust their asses, to find a way, and to laugh.

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