Tonight comes a much-anticipated event in the disabled community (if there is a disabled community): the premiere of “Speechless” on ABC. If you haven’t heard about it, read up. I’ll be watching with high hopes and plenty of forgiveness. The show shouldn’t have to feel like it’s walking on eggshells when viewed by parents of handicapped, non-verbal kids like mine. There’s room for mistakes. There’s room for making jokes about things that might offend some people. Godspeed and good luck, “Speechless.”
I’m not sure if this is the right time or place for this, but I myself had also been writing, at least in my head, a TV sitcom about a family struggling with a severe handicap, in this case autism. Hey, maybe if “Speechless” does well, “Ought-ism” could be the next big thing. Though as I look at this…it also looks like parts of it could be “Speechless” in three years anyway. Well, all the more reason to put it up here now and not later.
In this case, the crux of the show is that the autistic child, Luke, is now 19, but still doing things like covering the walls with his own feces, much like the young adult in the Toni Collette movie The Black Balloon (2008). The parents, very contrary to any network-TV show, didn’t originally give birth in their 20s; instead they waited, and that backstory of procrastination and eventual procreation is a constant source of humor and antagonism throughout the show. Their adopted daughter, now 18, charges them with liberal guilt and poor planning.
In the pilot episode, the adopted daughter prepares to leave for college, and warns her younger siblings that they’ll be made to do everything for Luke if they don’t get out as soon as they can. She gives a speech about “Ought”-ism; you ought to help your parents and Luke, their parents ought to help you, Luke ought to help himself, but nobody around is going to do what they ought to.
In subsequent episodes, the sister has moved to college and the kids are forced to pick up the slack; they realize they’re terrible at helping Luke, and that they suddenly have to get better at that while also getting better at school in time to get into a good college and away from home, as their sister just did.
Jim and Fran try various new therapies with Luke in different episodes. They would love him to be independent, and they try to get him to do paid work online. They also work for him to move to a more specialized home, without success. There’s a constant push-pull of love in tension with the idea of needing more space and sanity. In other words Luke’s autism is a constant problem but also source of humor.
JIM, 65ish, white – Newspaper reporter in constant danger of being downsized, failing to get enough clicks, etc. Wants to retire, can’t. Not good at managing family or expectations. Get a great weird, aging movie star or SNL alum. They need this job, which plays well into the story.
FRAN, 65ish, white – College adjunct professor never going to get tenure. Also not good with managing family. Trying to get Luke into a permanent home, but that’s not working. Remembers 60s too well, partied too much during 70s and 80s. No doubt, plenty of great actresses to choose from.
LUKE, 19, white – Should be played by a person with autism, if possible. Non-verbal, non-violent, but also non-reachable in many ways. In therapy. Doesn’t want to leave family home. Has love/hate relationship with siblings, manifested constantly.
INDIA, 18, Latina – “rescued” from Colombia drug wars, though she disses her parents for putting it that way; identifies as black and moving 3000 miles across the country to Howard University; in touch on Skype
VIOLA, 15, white – fraternal twin of Sebastian, smart, starting sophomore year, trying to get through high school without being much noticed
SEBASTIAN, 15, white – fraternal twin of Viola, mostly likes playing video games, starting sophomore year, suddenly realizes he has to study if he hopes to escape home at age 18