Netflix’s “Special” is so clever, breezy and bingeable that it’s easy to overlook the show’s more groundbreaking and subversive aspects — front and center as they may be.
The eight-episode series, which premiered on the streaming network last week, follows Ryan (played by Ryan O’Connell, also the show’s creator), a 28-year-old gay man with cerebral palsy. Though Ryan has been living out of the closet for years, he soon finds himself ensnared in the confines of a different one when he convinces colleagues at Eggwoke, the fictional news website where he works, that his limp is the result of a car crash rather than a disability. (Catch the series trailer above.)
A Los Angeles screenwriter whose credits include MTV’s “Awkward” and NBC’s “Will & Grace” revival, O’Connell based “Special” on his experiences navigating his intersecting identities — many of which he recounted in his 2015 memoir, “I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves.”
O’Connell, now 32, came out as gay at age 17. But he didn’t start embracing his true self — that of a queer person with a disability — until he was 28, the same age as the character of Ryan on “Special.” That’s one of many plot points on the series that mirrors his off-screen life.
“What happens in the show happened to me,” he told HuffPost. “When I was 20, I was hit by a car … and when I moved to New York to go to school, no one knew me there, and they all thought my limp was from my accident. I never bothered to correct them because I grew up with a mild case of cerebral palsy, and I felt like I never really belonged in the disabled world because … well, because I now know internalized ableism exists. But back then, I rationalized it.”
As “Special” progresses, Ryan’s attempt to rewrite his identity appears to work in his favor, giving his self-esteem a much-needed boost. Against the wishes of his well-meaning but co-dependent mother (Jessica Hecht), he moves out of his childhood home and into his first apartment. He also befriends a new gal pal, Kim (Punam Patel), loses his virginity and begins a flirtation with Carey (Augustus Prew), who becomes a prospective love interest. Of course, Ryan’s truth threatens to shatter this thinly constructed facade at every turn.
As an actor, O’Connell boasts a warm, natural screen presence, and lends Ryan plenty of self-effacing wit. That note-perfect casting, however, was borne out of necessity. Shortly after it was published, “I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves” caught the attention of “The Big Bang Theory” star Jim Parsons and director Craig Johnson (“The Skeleton Twins”). Working with O’Connell, the men began plans to adapt the memoir for the screen. Pitching the idea to major studios, however, they faced “lots of ‘no,’ ‘no,’ and ‘fuck no,’” O’Connell said, resulting in “four years of hell.”
Eventually, they secured an offer with the digital content brand Stage 13, which specializes in short-form content (each episode of “Special” clocks in at a brisk 15-20 minutes). Before long, financial restraints required O’Donnell to step in.
“If you ever wanna play yourself, go someplace that doesn’t have a lot of money and they’ll have no choice but to pick you,” he quipped.
Several months of acting lessons later, however, O’Connell felt confident his thespian chops were on par with his more experienced cast mates. “Maybe I’ve lived in LA too long, but … I immediately knew what I needed to do to bring this character to life,” he said. “I was never scared.”
As to where the off-screen O’Connell ends and the fictionalized Ryan begins, “he’s more stunted emotionally that I ever was,” O’Connell said. “I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 18, I went to college, I lived on my own. I lost my virginity at 18 to my boyfriend at the time.” Still, he added, “We definitely hated ourselves in equal amounts.”
A lot of the early buzz on “Special” has singled out the show’s third episode, in which Ryan, eager to date but stalled by his lack of bedroom experience, visits a sex worker (Brian Jordan Alvarez). What ensues is, without question, one of the most frank, detailed depictions of gay sex ever shown on a mainstream TV series.
“I was just like, ‘Can we really just talk about anal sex, the positions?’ Because no one ever has,” he explained. “I was beyond frustrated. So I was like, ‘Fuck, I’ll do it,’ and then we can start a conversation. Better late than never, you know?”
“Special” also arrives at a time when disability representation is sorely lacking in both film and television. A 2017 report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, for example, found that only 2.7% of characters in the 100 highest-grossing movies of 2016 were depicted with a disability. Similarly, a 2018 GLAAD report found that only 2.1% of all regular characters on primetime TV in the 2018-2019 season had disabilities.
The first season’s final episode, “Gay Gardens,” ends with a multi-dimensional cliffhanger that could impact all of the principal characters. O’Connell is hopeful he’ll be able to further explore that plot point, as well as other narrative threads, in a second season, also extending the running time of each episode to 30 minutes.
Regardless of whether “Special” extends beyond its current season, he’ll consider his mission accomplished if audiences come away from the series with a greater empathy for the disabled experience.
“People are so uncomfortable around disabilities, and they’re so scared of offending or treating someone the wrong way, they choose to ignore us,” he said. “We’re strong, independent, emotionally complex people with our own wants and desires. To me, the show is successful if people start including those with disabilities in their discussions about diversity.”