On ABC’s new comedy, Speechless, California mom Maya DiMeo (Minnie Driver) moves through life like a bulldozer, crushing human obstacles in her way by delivering insults with brute force. But not everyone sees her coming. When the principal of her children’s new school suggests her son access the campus through a “wheelchair ramp” generally used for garbage bins, Maya offers a verbose “crash course in human dignity.” If the school’s going to treat her son like trash, Maya is going to get revenge in kind.
Driver gives the performance of her career–and not merely because her particular aptitude for cutting insults is put to such good use. Speechless is a movingly textured look at how one child’s disability affects the entire life of a family. Maya is this tough because she has to be.
Of her three children, the one most like her in salty demeanor is J.J., who–like the gifted teen actor Micah Fowler, who plays him–has cerebral palsy. J.J. is nonverbal, so he uses every aspect of his mien, along with his spelling board, to transmit his deep cynicism and utter disdain for overearnest teachers and clueless classmates, who greet him with a too-smiley manner that’s rooted in sympathy, not empathy.
Maya is happy with J.J.’s inclusion: it’s hard-won after the family moved into the dingiest home in wealthy Newport Beach, Calif., to make use of community resources. She even accedes to his desire to hire the uncondescending school gardener (Cedric Yarbrough) as his new helper, though she disdains his line of work. (“He mows grass for a living,” she says. “This is a man whose chief job competition is goats.”)
But she has less time for her other two children, Ray (Mason Cook) and Dylan (Kyla Kenedy). Good-natured pranks with an endlessly tolerant dad (John Ross Bowie) provide an outlet for little Dylan, but Ray is adrift.
It’s in Cook’s chemistry with Driver that Speechless finds its most provocative subject matter. Obsessively providing for J.J., Maya has suppressed any instinct that distracts from that goal. When Ray signals that endless quality-of-life sacrifices are growing tough to bear, Maya can’t allow herself to hear. Her coming to terms with the necessity of engaging all her children is as painful as comedy gets.
Speechless joins a set of accomplished and inclusive ABC family sitcoms, like black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat and The Real O’Neals. Respectively, these shows explore life for a black family, an Asian-American family and an Irish Catholic family with a gay son–all stories that signal a new and welcome openness to all sorts of stories on network television. It’s a great neighborhood to be a part of, and one into which the DiMeos fit elegantly. Wit, however savage, can’t solve their problems. But families of all kinds know it can provide a path to talking frankly about life’s tougher moments. For all her bluster, Maya needs her humor to make life bearable. That the rest of her family, for all their differences, share her clever sensibility is heartening proof that in this beautifully drawn family, no one is far from the tree.
Speechless airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. E.T. on ABC
This appears in the October 17, 2016 issue of TIME.