How to Listen to Someone You Love
'El Deafo' premieres all three episodes on Apple TV+ and instantly earns Essential Viewing status.
Now Streaming: I've had my share of troubles, physical and otherwise, but I count myself grateful that I've never suffered the loss of my hearing, as experienced by Cece Bell in her early childhood, which she recounted in her graphic-novel memoir.
Her experiences have now been brought to life in El Deafo, a three-episode animated series, that is intended for "kids and families," but it's one of the relatively rare family-skewing shows that can be equally enjoyed by single people with no children.
Watching the show, initially just to sample it, the beguiling artwork and appealing characters quickly drew me in, to the point that when young Cece (voiced by Lexi Finigan) suddenly loses nearly all of her hailing one fateful day, I was moved to tears by its simple, brilliant poignance.
Narrated by the adult Cece Bell herself, she describes her thoughts and emotions with unerring honesty. She doesn't cover up her own childish or foolish or negative feelings, yet neither does she ever talk down to her audience, especially those of younger years, a common mistake made by well-intentioned adults who prefer to avoid their own emotional pain when speaking with children about the daunting challenges they face.
The latter point comes more into evidence during the second and third episodes, as young Cece endeavors to adjust to a life that has changed forever. It's not only her own feelings that is navigating as a child, though; she's also trying to figure out how to deal with parents, especially her mother (voiced by Pamela Adlon) and her primary-school teacher (voiced by Jane Lynch), who are well-intentioned souls who don't always do the right thing, at least from Cece's perspective.
What also makes El Deafo relatable is that Cece is just like other children her age in that she desperately wants to make friends who will accept her for who she is, not what they want her to be. She wants to be accepted on her own terms, naturally, yet she also is seeking friends who will prove to be genuine friends, which is never easy for any of us, whatever our age.
Beyond what we might call 'educational' moments, the show is also rife with superheroes plucked from Cece's imagination and placed into situations that she dreams up from problems she is experiencing. It's all handled deftly by the animators, likely matching the original graphic novel's drawing style -- I imagine, since I haven't read the book -- and fits very well into the three episodes as a whole.
The writing is sharp though kind, layered with a gentle adult's perspective, looking back upon her own youth with a genuine sense of wonder. How do we survive the troubles we face? El Deafo doesn't have all the answers, but it's smart enough to know it doesn't.
Instead, it puts a realistic, positive spin on a sensory book of life that may be missing a few pages but still earns its place as Essential Viewing. [Apple TV+]