It’s been a minute since Paste last checked in with Disney Channel’s Andi Mack, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the GLAAD Media Award-winning series hasn’t been straight up killing it in the interval: In the past 11 months, spanning the back half of Season Two and the first half of Season Three, we’ve seen Andi (Peyton Elizabeth Lee) start, thrive in, and end her first romantic relationship; Cyrus (Joshua Rush) come out to Andi (after having come out to Sophie Wylie’s Buffy the previous year); Jonah (Asher Angel) learn to cope with intense anxiety and panic attacks; Bex (Lilan Bowden) and Bowie (Trent Garrett) propose to each other and take on their engagement from a position of equitability; Bex and Celia (Lauren Tom) start a business together; Celia and Ham (Stoney Westmoreland) survive extended separation during Ham’s globetrotting midlife crisis; Buffy start her school’s first ever girl’s basketball team (with no help from a single adult); and Cyrus develop a deep friendship (and possibly more?) with ex-bully TJ (Luke Mullen).
That’s plenty of story already, but because showrunner Terri Minsky can’t help but strive for excellence, in that same period Andi Mack also managed to squeeze in Cyrus’ bar mitzvah (the first on Disney Channel, and an open door to an upcoming episode in which the kids support Cyrus as he sits Shiva), Andi’s family’s celebration of the Harvest Moon festival (following up on the previous season’s Lunar New Year episode), and a short arc featuring Cyrus and TJ about what to do when faced with a friend who’s playing with a family member’s loaded gun. This is all in a half-hour series! On Disney!
This Friday’s episode, “The Quacks,” which features A Quiet Place’s Millicent Simmonds in just one of its many plots, is Andi Mack at its most densely packed and zippily progressive: The episode takes on six distinct stories (the series is, in its narrative ambitiousness, like Jane the Virgin’s sweet kid cousin), but while each stands on its own, they all share the thesis that if you want any relationship to succeed, then communication? It’s super important.
Cue: Millicent Simmonds, returning to guest star for the second time as Libby, Jonah’s first post-Andi girlfriend—who also happens to be deaf. (Editor’s note: In this story we’ve followed the National Center on Disability and Journalism’s Disability Language Style Guide, which recommends deferring to the subject’s preference on the use of “deaf” vs. “Deaf.” As Simmonds used the lowercase version in all of her correspondence with Paste, we have chosen to do so as well.)
In her first appearance on the series, Libby was introduced as a kind of Andi redux—friendly, goofy, craftsy, and 1,000 times better at communicating than the chronically oblivious Jonah Beck. “It’s okay, you can text!” Jonah tries to assure Andi, after Andi apologizes for how few signs she remembers from elementary school when sitting down across from Libby for the first time. “But then aren’t all your conversations just… [mimes texting intently before looking up and smiling] …staring at your phone?” Andi asks, a mix of confusion and dawning horror on her face as she recognizes the position of Jonah Beck-induced frustration Libby has found herself in. “Everyone stares at their phone!” Jonah returns with an eyeroll to Libby before turning his attention to his phone to text her something—at which point, Andi and Libby catch each other’s glances and share a laugh as Libby sticks her tongue out to prove the very point Jonah’s missing.
When they began developing Libby’s character, Minsky tells Paste via email, “we did some research and learned that texting was originally used as a tool in the deaf community before it was implemented into cell phone technology. We gravitated towards a storyline on texting since everyone is so device-dependent nowadays and prefer texting over in-person conversations, [and w]e made the decision that, other than Jonah, we weren’t going to have any other characters text Libby in any of the episodes she appears in.”
This juxtaposition is obviously key in highlighting just how disconnected Jonah is in his relationship with Libby, but it also fits into the story the show is telling about his overall character as the resident well-intentioned-but-oblivious golden boy who is only slowly coming around to being comfortable with building some real personal depth. That Jonah Beck wouldn’t think twice about dating someone who is deaf is a given; love is love. (Or, as is more appropriately the case for 14-year-olds, like is like.) That he also wouldn’t think twice about whether or not she might want to communicate in some way other than text, which is chill and easy and takes absolutely no effort on his part whatsoever? That’s a given, too. And, according to Simmonds, it’s an approach that’s all too common when it comes to relationships between hearing and deaf kids her age.
“Texting has definitely improved the communication between the deaf and hearing communities,” she tells Paste in an email, “but it shouldn’t be… a substitute for learning the language to really connect with someone, especially someone you want to date or have a relationship with. I think hearing kids my age miss out on genuine connections already because they text so much, and then they feel awkward when they are face to face with someone. The deaf community relies so much on eye contact, expression and body language. It’s such a huge part of who we are.”
As Libby returns this week in “The Quacks,” so too do all the emotions and frustrations that can boil over when these aspects of deaf communication are lost—frustration compounded, in Libby’s case, by the fact that now it’s not only Andi who’s signing with her throughout all of their conversations, but also Cyrus, while Jonah still has yet to try to learn a single word. (Below, get a sneak peek at the PSA about communicating with the hard of hearing that will air immediately following “The Quacks.”)
Libby reaching her limit with Jonah’s willful ignorance marks the emotional crest of “The Quacks,” as Jonah’s reliance on Cyrus translating Libby’s every word turns into Cyrus having to translate her unhappiness at the fact that his mediation is required. As is often the case for Jonah, Libby’s final outburst of anger at him for never trying to meet her even one percent of the way knocks the scales from his eyes and sends him off not just to learn a few signs, but also to interrogate the fear of failure that kept him from trying in the first place. (We stan an emotionally resilient teen boy!) As for Libby, she is gracious enough to give him a second chance. She also takes her own steps in meeting him where he’s at, responding to his signed “I like you” with the same words, spoken aloud—Simmonds’ first-ever time speaking on camera.
How this small moment of Andi Mack magic came to be is something of a mystery—neither Minsky nor Simmonds can recall who first floated the idea, although both do remember that it wasn’t in the original script.
“If I remember correctly,” Minsky says, “I think Millie and her mom decided that she was going to actually speak the line, ‘I like you, too,’ back to Jonah. We didn’t even realize she hadn’t spoken on camera before.”
“I can’t even remember how it was brought up or who had the idea,” Simmonds says, “but I remember my mom asking me how I felt about it, and I told her I thought I could try. I was actually pretty nervous about it. I don’t use my voice a lot in public.”
“When Millie was getting wired for sound, I was standing with her mom,” Minsky continues. “I remember we both started crying, and everyone around us had tears running down their faces. I feel like I never got the chance to express to Millie how grateful I was to have this honor. I had practiced what I wanted to say to her via sign language, but when I was standing in front of Millie—I just froze up. And now looking back, I realize I never really asked her what it was like for her, and I really wish I had. It’s just one of those things that you feel so grateful to be in a position where you can have this kind of experience. There are some moments in making this show, where I don’t know how I got so lucky to be part of something so special. Watching Millie speak on camera for the first time is just one of those incredibly special moments.”
“They were very sensitive and really wanted to follow my lead on how I felt about it,” Simmonds adds—a sentiment that honestly seems to describe a lot more than the experience filming that single scene. Throughout our conversation, she turns repeatedly to stories about how welcome the cast and crew made her feel on set: Terri and the writers asking for her opinion on the accuracy of Libby’s storyline; the Good Hair Crew making her feel like she was a part of gang from Day 1; the whole cast and crew working hard to sign with her on set whenever possible.
“I have to say that Peyton and Josh really caught on quickly and went above and beyond to communicate with me,” Simmonds says. “They weren’t interested in just learning their lines. They really wanted to have conversations and connect with me when we weren’t filming. Sofia and Asher as well. And Lilan!! I couldn’t believe how much she learned just to communicate with me. We didn’t even have any scenes together and she would come and show me everything she had learned on YouTube the night before. I was so impressed with her. It meant a lot to me.”
It may seem like gilding the lily to reiterate how very On Brand this is, both on- and offscreen, for the wholesome-memes-come-to-life wonder that is Andi Mack, but it’s true: This is a series that, when it wants to examine communication, will go out of its way to incorporate a deaf character organically and without tokenization, and whose cast and crew will enthusiastically go just as out of their way to make her one of their own. And what’s more, they’ll all make the audience their accomplices: When Minsky said above that Jonah would be the only person to text with Libby, she wasn’t joking—none of Libby’s signing conversations with Andi, Cyrus and the rest are translated for the audience via subtitles.
This, Simmonds says, is something she’s particularly pleased with. “They made the right decision, in my opinion. I think it forces kids to focus on the signing instead of reading what I’m saying. And I hope it shows kids my age that the language barrier really doesn’t need to be a big deal. Deaf people are more than willing to try and meet the hearing community half way when we feel they are trying to make an effort to communicate with us.”
That sure sounds like a piece of advice that we could all use, in all of our relationships: Make a real effort to communicate, and the other person may be that much more likely to try and meet you halfway. Sure, the first results of that communication might look a lot like “Quinn+Mack=Quack,” at which Andi grimaces when her soon-to-be-united nuclear family unit tries, elsewhere in the episode, to land on a good compromise for their future shared name. Once the initial awkwardness is passed, though, real progress can follow.
Andi Mack airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on Disney Channel.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.