Thursday, September 29, 2016

"Speechless" Review: S1E2 - "N-E-New A-I-Aide

On this episode of Speechless, JJ gets a new aide, Maya has an argument with herself, Dylan and Jimmy prank the neighbors, and Ray becomes a PT's bitch.  Let's watch Speechless!

I started to agree with some people this episode that said Maya was too over the top.  I didn't feel it so much last episode, maybe because it was the pilot.  But if the show continues like this, Maya could get real annoying, real fast.  The argument with herself, trying to get the principal to be more hard-ass, was bordering on bizarre.  I get that Maya is kind of looking for a fight, because she wants to be a warrior mom for her son.  But you never look a gift horse in the mouth!  If the principal is willing to give your child the accommodations he needs, you hightail it out of there before she changes her mind!  You'd think Maya would have learned that by now.

(A thought I just had - why is the principal dealing with the accommodations and not the special ed department? Does this school not have a special ed department?)

At the same time, I know mothers like this.  I do!  Mothers who will call their disabled children whenever they go anywhere without their parents, freaking out and going "Where are you?  What are you doing?  Do you need to go to the bathroom?" Or even worse, call their aide and speak directly to them.  In this situation, Kenneth should have been acting only as JJ's translator (or re-voicer, as some people with communication disabilities call it) so that HE could talk to his mom.

I also thought the beginning of the episode, with the life-alert buttons, was weird.  Maya gave them a whole speech about having a special needs child who may need medical attention, but we've been given absolutely no indication that JJ is medically fragile.  It would have made more sense to say "My son has epilepsy and may have a seizure that requires medical attention." (Not all seizures need medical attention.) Epilepsy IS a very common co-morbid disorder with CP!  My fear is that without further context, it might give off the impression that all people with CP are medically fragile.  Some are, and there's nothing wrong with that.  But it's usually more co-morbid disorders than CP itself, and I don't want this show to give people any wrong impressions about CP.

All of this is not to say I didn't love this episode!  I did!  I loved that JJ skipped his PT appointment, even though it wasn't the right thing to do.  And Kenneth let him, because ultimately it's JJ's decision.  That's a phenomenon called dignity of risk in special ed/disability circles, and it's super, super important.  I was really happy to see the show portray JJ as a regular teenager who might want to break the rules sometimes!  Too often, kids with disabilities are portrayed as saintly angels who never do anything wrong, or devils who cause trouble for everyone around them.  I loved that this show has never fallen into that trap (so far, please let it continue!).

And my god, did that lead to the funniest scene of all time.  First of all, "We pay for physical therapy.  We get physical therapy." is a line I could absolutely see my mom saying.  We didn't have much money when I was a kid, so I got all my PT and OT in school, unlike a lot of other kids with disabilities I knew.  But if we paid for PT outside of school?  You better believe my mom would be trying to make the most out of every penny.

So, in order to make the most out of every penny, Maya makes Ray go to PT instead, where the PT promptly criticizes his pronated feet and basically tells him to walk heel-toe.  It's clear that the Speechless team consulted with either an actual PT or someone who's had extensive experience with PTs in childhood for this scene (I can't help but wonder if Micah Fowler himself contributed a few notes about having extensive PT in childhood).  This, in turn, makes Ray so self-conscious that, trying to make himself walk "normally", he weirds out his crush at school.  As someone who was constantly trying to show a barrage of doctors and therapists how "well" (i.e. "normally") I could walk as a kid, this scene resonated with me like no other.

Now, let's talk about what is, in my opinion, the most important scene in the entire episode.  During her meeting with the principal, Maya realizes with some horror that Kenneth has taken JJ to the bathroom.  She flees to the men's room, where Kenneth and JJ are just finishing up.  Now, why is this such an important scene?  Let us count the ways...

1) It's a big step in Maya's growth.

I think this is the moment, more than anything, where Maya realizes that she can let go.  She stands in the doorway and she sees and hears that Kenneth has things under control, that JJ isn't going to get hurt if she's not with him every second.  It's hard for her to let go, but she's starting to finally realize that she has to if JJ is ever going to grow up and be his own man.

2)  It's a realistic situation.

What I love about Speechless, above all else, is that it doesn't shy away from showing the nitty gritty reality of disability.  A lot of kids with CP need help with toileting!  It's a thing!  Instead of trying to steer around the "uncomfortable" topic, Speechless handles it with humor and grace.  When was the last time you saw a character who needs help toileting using the bathroom on a TV series?  Never?  That's what I thought.  It may not seem like much, but to me, this one scene is a HUGE step in representation of disabled people on TV.   It's not handled as some uncomfortable, awkward, horrible thing.  It's just someone using the bathroom.  Kenneth is casual about it and neither he nor JJ seem embarrassed about it.  They're just doing what they have to do.  It reminded me of countless bathroom trips with the counselors at camp, complete with casual conversation and a few laughs.

I'd like to address the subplot with Dylan and Jimmy pranking the neighbors, but honestly, it bored me.  I didn't like it, I didn't understand it, and I didn't think it was necessary.  I know it was supposed to be funny, but it felt annoying and forced, especially the repeated use of variations on "we're idiots".  We get it, you're an eccentric family.  You don't have to pound it into us., especially not with an ableist term like idiot.  I liked the subplot with Dylan and the track team in the first episode, so hopefully this was just a writing fluke and Dylan will get better plots in the future.

Stay tuned next week for my next review of Speechless!

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