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What Makes a Great Family Sitcom?

‘Speechless’ has the right idea; ‘American Housewife,’ not so much

ABC/Ringer illustration
ABC/Ringer illustration

ABC’s two freshman comedies share a nearly identical, pretty much unprecedented premise: A family takes up residence in one of America’s wealthiest suburban enclaves for access to public schools better equipped to take care of kids with special needs. The rest of the family — mom, dad, brother, and sister — adjusts accordingly. In theory, Speechless and American Housewife are perfect, if seemingly redundant, extensions of their network’s increasingly established brand of family comedies for the 21st century. In practice, one grafts a fresh-feeling sensibility onto a road-tested frame. The other just feels ridden into the ground.

Over the past few years, ABC has smartly filled a vacuum in shrewd, likable network half hours (many of which NBC willingly left behind) with shows that follow a simple formula: take the basic template of the family comedy, but apply it to a different kind of family than the white, rich, and otherwise “normal” clans at the center of 50-plus years of television. Fresh Off the Boat is about the immigrant experience, The Middle working-class life in the heartland, Black-ish upward mobility and racial identity. (Still-rich, still-mostly-white, but-it-has-a-gay-couple-and-an-interracial-marriage Modern Family is best considered a well-meaning if out-of-touch patriarch that made its successors possible, even though they’ve far surpassed it.) But mostly, these shows are about cute kids and flustered parents. Same as it ever was.

Now in its fifth week, Speechless fits comfortably into this new tradition. Its central nuclear unit is the DiMeo clan, whose oldest child JJ (Micah Fowler) has cerebral palsy and whose four other members, particularly matriarch Maya (Minnie Driver), have shaped their entire lives around that diagnosis. After cycling through school after school, the DiMeos finally put down roots in Newport Beach, California, where an aide program promises JJ, among other things, a literal human “voice” to speak on his behalf. This being a sitcom, the assigned aide is immediately dispatched in favor of supremely chill groundskeeper Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough). JJ adjusts to life as a normal-ish high school student, and Maya learns to ease up on her ferocious dedication to getting JJ a … normal-ish life as a high school student. The DiMeos are used to constant chaos; it’s inertia that proves the real challenge.

Speechless still has some of the early-going blind spots and rough patches that come with replicating the chemistry and intimacy of a real-life family. The youngest DiMeo, tomboy jock Dylan (Kyla Kenedy), remains far less developed than her siblings; the dynamic between hard-driving Brit Maya and her chilled-out American husband Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) remains unexplored. But JJ’s condition instantly sets Speechless apart from anything else on TV, grounding the show with an authentic source of both pathos and comedy. In one episode, Maya rejiggers the board JJ uses to communicate with buzzwords like “Kylie Jenner” and “Hells yeah, bitch” (“It means he needs to go to the bathroom”). Earlier in the same half hour, Jimmy gives a plain-spoken speech about learning not to care what other people think “because all this stuff — other people’s opinions? It’s nothing. You know what’s not nothing? When the doctor tells you something’s wrong with your kid.” This show knows that disability, like most facts of life, can frequently be funny; it also knows that levity and gravity are two sides of the same coin. Speechless wrings normalcy from an abnormal situation, in part by showing JJ’s adjustment struggles on the same continuum as, say, his little brother’s Hughesian nerd-tries-to-get-the-girl subplot. And yet it always returns to what makes the show exceptional: JJ, his condition, and the all-encompassing effect it has on the family and its dynamic.

Contrast this approach with American Housewife, which takes an utterly conventional concept and strains, painfully and unsuccessfully, to convince us it’s groundbreaking.

Like the DiMeos, the Ottos of American Housewife have a child who requires extra care. But the title (and the even more cringeworthy discarded one: The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport) indicates that the show’s true priorities lie with a very different, and much less interesting, class of misfit. Daughter Anna-Kat (Julia Butters) isn’t even given the due diligence of a proper diagnosis, just a jumble of OCD-like behaviors mined for maximum comic and negligible emotional value. Our real heroine is her mother, Katie (Katy Mixon). She may be a well-off mom in a well-off Connecticut suburb, but don’t worry, she’s not like the other moms: She’s a few pounds heavier!

This is American Housewife’s extremely minimal standard for deviancy, and the bar keeps lowering over the first couple of episodes of the show. We’re meant to read Katie as “refreshing” or “honest” because she eats cupcakes, or admits to having a favorite kid, or wears a sweater backward. This is in contrast to the green-juice-swilling, Lululemon-wearing Stepfordites whose preprogrammed response to Katie is a coo of “You’re so real!” It’s supposed to come off as patronizing, and it does — because “You’re so real!” is precisely the attitude American Housewife takes toward its own protagonist.

By repeatedly emphasizing how kooky ’n’ crazy Katie’s really rather average behavior is supposed to come off as, American Housewife has a nasty habit of reinforcing the oppressive norms it theoretically defies. Exhibit A: Katie’s weight and American Housewife’s near-obsessive focus on it. Instead of depicting “not being a Size 2” as the utterly unremarkable state it is for millions of women, American Housewife treats it like a curse. It takes 22 minutes of pilot for Katie to come to terms with the horror of being “vice fattest.” American Housewife reassures us it’s OK to stand out, but it defines Katie by the only way she really does. The implication is doubly repressive: Being plus-size really does make you enough of a freak to serve as the sole hook of an entire TV show, and any other quirks really are beyond the pale.

In its smug self-congratulation for a radical quality it doesn’t really have, American Housewife resembles nothing so much as Modern Family, which remains the ratings flagship of ABC’s comedy slate. But Modern Family at least has the excuse of being eight years old — an eternity in Peak TV years. When that show premiered in 2009, there really was something remarkable about having a gay couple on television (even if they never kissed in the first season) and a Latina character in the ensemble (even if her accent carried roughly 84 percent of her jokes). And it started a still-growing family tree of genuinely novel sitcoms that have actually made good on Modern’s unfulfilled promise.

American Housewife’s nakedly retrograde views on working moms and child-rearing walk its network back to a pre-Modern era. But Speechless pushes ABC forward, proving once again that expanding the family comedy’s purview is more an opportunity to make great work than an obligation to check boxes. Disability is so often absent from television that it often isn’t even recognized as such. Speechless shows us what we’re missing.