Sometimes you just have to laugh.
For Shaun Pye, a British comedy writer whose daughter, Jo, has a chromosomal disorder that makes it hard for her to communicate — and a fierce desire to get her own way in spite of it — Facebook was once the place he told stories about his family’s sometimes complicated life.
“My friends would sort of laugh or be moved or whatever. A lot of them said to me, ‘You’re a comedy writer. We just don’t see this. Nobody talks about this in mainstream television,’ " said Pye in an interview in February.
They can now.
There She Goes, Pye’s BBC Four series starring David Tennant and Jessica Hynes as Simon and Emily Yates, made its U.S. debut on April 16 on the streaming service BritBox. It’s part of a small but growing number of shows that, like ABC’s Speechless and Netflix’s Atypical, include characters with disabilities in comedy.
Beyond that one fact, those characters have no more in common than anyone else on TV. In Netflix’s first 15-minute comedy, the semi-autobiographical, sexually frank Special, creator and star Ryan O’Connell plays a gay man with cerebral palsy who’d rather people believe his physical limits were caused by a car accident.
Hulu’s Ramy, which premieres on the streaming service on Friday, April 19, stars comedian Ramy Youssef as an Egyptian American from New Jersey struggling to reconcile his Muslim faith with his less-than-pious life. Part of the gang regularly giving him a hard time is Steve, a character with muscular dystrophy, played by Steve Way.
Youssef describes Way, who also has the condition, as his best friend, someone he’s known since the third grade. It’s Way, he told reporters, who encouraged him to do a tough-to-watch (and apparently fictional) scene in which Ramy the character, after swallowing one of his friend’s cannabis edibles, talks to Steve’s mother about, among other things, her son’s future funeral.
When we next see the two together, he’s getting Ramy to chauffeur him to a rendezvous with someone he met online and coercing his alcohol-abstaining buddy to buy him booze to bring along.
There She Goes is a comedy more in the style of Amazon’s Catastrophe and Fleabag — expect as many gut punches as belly laughs — but it’s as funny as any honest show about life with kids could be while providing an unsentimental glimpse into one family’s very specific challenges.
Including the tendency of 9-year-old Rosie Yates (Miley Locke) to empty any unattended bottles of liquid she manages to come across.
Locke doesn’t share Rosie’s condition, but her performance had me rooting for the character at her most outrageous (and, OK, empathizing with those who had to clean up the mess).
“We auditioned girls with learning difficulties as well as those without,” executive producer Clelia Mountford told reporters at a BritBox news conference in February. A child psychologist, she said, told them “it would be far too demanding for such a child because of the schedule and also aping certain behavior, like running out into the road, pouring milk over themselves . ..wouldn’t have been advisable.”
“Miley’s portrayal of Rosie is very, very similar to Jo," Pye said. “The best review I’ve had of the show is that Joey loves watching ... Miley’s portrayal of her on screen.” The two have also spent time together. "They’re very sweet together, Miley and Joey. They’re kind of buddies.”
Tennant also gets to play a character at his most outrageous, in flashbacks to Rosie’s infancy and later, when Simon’s shown hanging out in a bar after work, doing everything he can to avoid going home.
When Pye first met with Tennant to talk about the show, he told him about rereading the first draft of the script he’d written three years earlier, “about a guy who had a daughter with a severe learning disability and he was the hero of the piece, and he was holding everything together … [with] a wife who’s, like, in his ear the whole time."
He’d shown that draft to Sarah, his wife.
"And she just said, ‘You are not [expletive] making this show, mate.’ ”
His wife ended up co-writing the series, with the viewpoint changed enough that Pye said Hynes, after filming a scene in which she tells off Tennant’s character, walked over to him and said, “This is basically the most elaborate apology anyone’s ever made to their wife, isn’t it?"
“I think what was very striking when I read the script was just how honest Shaun had been about his life and about his family’s life and about his part in it, and the very fact that he was ready to be so honest about his own shortcomings, I think, means that there is something heroic, actually, about him," Tennant said when I asked how it felt to be the personification of Pye’s shortcomings as a father.
Still, it’s Hynes’ Emily I identified with, in ways I hadn’t expected. Though I happen to have a son with Down syndrome, his challenges are far fewer than Rosie’s, whose condition, like Jo Pye’s, falls under the umbrella of conditions medical science can’t yet fully identify.
Besides bringing back the almost-forgotten loneliness of being surrounded by new mothers whose babies hadn’t already been deemed different, what There She Goes nails, for me, is the funny parts of life with any child, and the exhilarating feeling of seeing one demonstrate a skill or an understanding you didn’t know he or she had.
Even if the result is a bit of a mess.
Before the show aired in Britain, there was a screening for an audience that included relatives of people with special needs.
“I was terrified of that screening," Pye said, “and the response just blew me away” as people came up to say how much they appreciated that he’d made it a comedy. “They would tell me stories about their siblings or children ... They were funny stories. And to have that, from those people, was so affirming.”
Amid the laughter, and, yes, the drama, there’s plenty for viewers who bring no personal experience to the show to appreciate. Simon, like Pye, isn’t exactly hung up on what’s considered correct terminology for his daughter’s condition.
"It’s not that people are hostile to Jo in any way, it’s just that either they don’t really understand what’s going on, or if they do understand what’s going on, they don’t really know what to say,” Pye said.