Television’s track record for telling stories involving individuals with special needs is spotty, and particularly tricky when it comes to comedy. That’s something that “Speechless” executive producer Scott Silveri sounded well aware of during a Thursday morning panel at the Television Critics Assn. summer press tour in Beverly Hills.
Centered on a family navigating the issues that can arise while raising a nonverbal special-needs child (portrayed by actor Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy), “Speechless” is a story Silveri said he had long wanted to tell after being raised with a brother with special needs. But, the former “Friends” producer was wary of how to tell it.
“Part of the reason why it was a scary endeavor is it does announce itself in such a way,” said Silveri. “You just hear the logline of a show with a kid with a disability, it suggests that ‘After School Special’-ness. That’s why we were really vigilant about doing everything we could to subvert that as early as possible.
“It’s not like ‘the disability show.’ We’re telling family stories here,” he continued. “At its core it’s a show about being different and not apologizing for being different and embracing who you are.”
In the series, Minnie Driver plays a mother who must be a strong, and even strident, advocate for her son, including confronting a public school about a wheelchair access exit that doubles as a trash ramp.
Though Driver has experience playing American, she uses her native London accent for “Speechless.” “We tried it both ways,” she said. “The real truth is you can get away with a lot more when you speak in a British accent. You can say very rude things and make them sound charming.”
Fowler, who made his television debut at age 9 on “Blue’s Clues” and on the big screen in the 2013 film “Labor Day,” was asked about his favorite comedies coming into this role. Speaking deliberately and with comic flair, he answered, “My favorite comedy is this one.”
Fowler’s character, J.J., is nonverbal on the show, and an aide portrayed by “Reno 911” actor Cedric Yarbrough acts as his voice. He too was aware of a need to transcend cliches in his role.
“I really wanted to stay away from someone who could be the savior coming to this family,” Yarbrough explained, noting a desire to avoid the hackneyed “Magical Negro” concept like “the ‘Bagger Vance’ character who, you know, knows all. I wanted to make sure that this guy doesn’t know much of anything. He’s going to make mistakes.”
In answering a question about the makeup of the “Speechless” writers’ room, Silveri noted his hopes to also avoid the usual TV tropes that can surround special needs individuals. “We have a lot of people on staff who have experience in this world, whether it’s having siblings or special needs children,” he said. “We don’t want [the show] to be all about that, but when it is we want to get it right and we feel a real responsibility.
“It’s not an issue show,” he explained. “But because there are so few representations of disability on television you can’t help but feel a responsibility of doing it in an informed and intelligent way.”