In Apple TV+’s new family miniseries El Deafo, Cece Bell narrates an animated version of her 2014 graphic novel. She’s telling the story as the adult version of herself, explaining how she became hearing impaired and how, in the not-so-enlightened late ’70s and early ’80s, she had to fight not only to hear the teachers with her hearing aids but to find friends that liked her for who she was, not because she was deaf. Read on for more.
EL DEAFO: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: A girl with bunny ears and a cape takes off a hearing aid and throws it like a lasso. Then we pan down and see a neighborhood. “My name is Cece Bell,” says the narrator, who happens to be the real-life Cece Bell. “When I was a kid, I lived right here in this big old house in a small town in Virginia.”
The Gist: We see that young Cece (Abagail Catalano) is your average kid, having fun with her big brother and sister, watching her favorite superhero cartoon. Suddenly, she takes ill and has to stay in the hospital with a bad infection. When she’s better, we hear the world from her perspective, all muffled and not understandable. She and her parents (Pamela Adlon, Evan Hoyt Thompson) soon realize that she has lost a significant amount of her hearing. She’s fitted with a bulky hearing aid, which helps her barely hear people, and is taught to lipread, because sign language wasn’t taught in the ’70s.
Cut to 4th grade. Cece (Lexi Finigan) is about to start school; for the first time she’ll be among the general population and not just with other hearing-impaired students. Her mother presents her with a new hearing aid, called the Phonic Ear. It’s bulky, but there’s a microphone that allows whoever’s wearing it to sound loud and clear in Cece’s ears. She thinks of it as a superpower, and when her sister tells her about someone on TV calling a deaf person “Deafo”, she gives the insult a new meaning by calling her superhero self “El Deafo.”
In school, she gives her new teacher, Mrs. Sinkleman (Jane Lynch), the microphone and is amazed at how clear it sounds. She even hears it when her teacher goes to the bathroom. A girl named Laura (Cassie Glow) wants to be friends and have a sleepover, but she basically orders Cece around; Cece imagines El Deafo taking on Dr. Not Nice, but not being able to get out of Laura’s pull in real life. Then another girl, Ginny (Sabrina Glow), wants to invite Cece to a sleepover with her friends, allowing El Deafo to finally break Dr. Not Nice’s spell.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? El Deafo has the gentle manner of specials like Amazon’s interpretation of The Snowy Day from a few years ago.
Our Take: El Deafo is really a 90-minute movie split into three parts. We just described what happens in the first episode. In the second, Cece finds out that Ginny refers to her as “my deaf friend,” which is as alienating as it sounds. She finally finds a friend that likes her for who she is in her neighbor Martha (Quinn Copeland), and experiences her first crush when a boy named Mike (Boy-yo Korodan) moves in a couple of doors down. But Martha ghosts her when she accidentally hurts Cece’s eye — which coincidentally leads Cece to get glasses — and in the third episode, Cece really wants to have her friend back. She also has to deal with losing her Phonic Ear when the gym teacher (Clancy Brown) accidentally breaks the microphone.
What struck us about El Deafo is that it’s not just a well-told story, but the dialogue is heard from Cece’s perspective. So when she first experiences her hearing loss, everyone sounds barely audible, except for the high-frequency sound of a test pattern. When her hearing aids are in, the people sound like they’re talking through a cardboard tube… that’s when she can see their lips. When she can’t, it’s just a mumble. The only times dialogue is clear is when she’s fantasizing about being El Deafo or someone is holding the microphone for Cece’s Phonic Ear.
It’s such a compelling story because it’s more or less Bell’s real story, and because she talks about how different things were for the hearing impaired when she was a kid. Bulky hearing aids, no closed captioning, teaching lipreading over ASL. It’s fascinating stuff, even to people like us who are around Cece’s age and lived through that period.
But what’s the most fascinating part of the story, written by Bell and Will McRobb and directed by Gilly Fogg, is Cece’s desire to just be liked for who she is. That’s something that isn’t a given now, but certainly was even tougher for hearing-impaired kids to experience back when Cece was growing up. And in her search for that friend, she finds people who call her “special,” talk to her slowly thinking she’ll understand them better and, yes, refer to her as “my deaf friend.” And the fact that she parses these experiences through being El Deafo puts them even more into focus.
What Age Group Is This For?: The series is rated TV-G, and there are lessons in it for all ages (including adults).
Parting Shot: At the end of episode 3, El Deafo flies off with her sidekick Marvygirl, now that Cece and Martha’s friendship is back on track.
Sleeper Star: Both Adlon and Lynch are great in their respective roles. Other celebrity voices are Chuck Nice as the audiologist and a few other roles, and Tara Strong in various roles.
Most Pilot-y Line: None.
Our Call: STREAM IT. We really enjoyed El Deafo because it was telling a more-or-less real story about the author’s life as a hearing-impaired kid during a time when kids with disabilities were treated as “the other” even more than they might be now.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.