Ryan O’Connell has crafted a great vehicle for himself. In Special – based on his memoir I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves – he stars as a fictional version of himself, a young gay man, living with cerebral palsy, who is trying to assert his independence, develop a career as a writer, and find love. The show is a funny, sweet, tart comedy with some growing pains that need to be ironed out, but it has the potential of being a huge success story for O’Connell and Netflix.
The eight-episode first series has a number of plots that rush to come to some sort of conclusion (the show’s brevity is not only due to the small number of episodes, but also because each episode is a curious 15 minutes long) When we first meet Ryan (played by O’Connell who also writes the show), he’s living at home with his self-sacrificing mother, Karen (Jessica Hecht, luminescent) The two have lived with each other for so long, and depending on each other for so much, that they’ve developed a co-dependent relationship with each other that is obviously a little unhealthy. Ryan has an issue with empathy for his mother, at times taking her for granted, while Karen uses Ryan as an excuse for not living her own life.
Eventually, Ryan sees his relationship with his mother as a major cockblock and announces that he wants to move out. Initially terrified at the prospect of Ryan living on his own and leaving her alone, Karen comes around to the idea when she notices the handsome neighbour next door. O’Connell does a solid job in writing the relationship between his mother and him – both characters contribute to the somewhat toxic, needy give-and-take that they share. He’s fair in that he doesn’t make Karen into a monster of emotional suck – event though she’s a little much sometimes -and he’s even-handed by making Ryan a shit sometimes. And when they’re good, they share the kind of overly-familiar relationships that often define the kinds of bonds gay men have with their single mothers.
Moving to his own apartment is just one of the things Ryan does to strike out on his own. The other is interning at an online Buzzfeed-like site called Eggwoke for which he writes articles. At work, he passes off his CP as an injury from a car accident. His taskmaster of a boss (Marla Mindelle) wants to exploit his injury for a clickbait-y article that will get lots of hits. At Eggwoke, he also becomes fast friends with the site’s star blogger, Kim Laghari (Punam Patel), who encourages the bashful Ryan to come out of his shell. Kim proves to be a much-needed friend, advocate, and wing woman for Ryan, and the two share a beautiful friendship.
As mentioned before, each episode is about 15 minutes. That means O’Connell has got to cram a lot, and for the most part he succeeds. Unfortunately, at times, the ticking clock means O’Connell crams too much, and the dialogue becomes clunky with exposition and beats that feel unearned. This is never more true than when we see scenes with Karen and her elderly mother (Mj Vandivier). Their shared scenes stumble quickly as they cover the requisite “elderly parent proves to be a burden to her kid” tropes, and their exchange feels stuffed. O’Connell, Hecht, Vandivier, and director Anna Dokoza are more than up to the task of handling the storyline well, but they’re given so little time, that they have to sprint – hopefully the following series of Special will have longer running times. The brief episodes also short change Mindelle, who is, so far, reduced to a Miranda Priestly- Wilhelmina Slater hybrid, with little-to-no-shading.
But when Special clicks, it works wonders. O’Connell is a proficient comedian – both physical and verbal – and is an appealing lead. He wisely surrounds himself with wonderful performers, especially Patel, whose hilariously broad performance practically screams “breakout star!” She strides into her scenes with a warm and comfort, stealing the show. O’Connell also stays clear of making his show “inspirational” or “uplifting.” Too many times stories of queer people or disabled people (or the combo of the both) are written in a condescending matter to educate viewers. Because O’Connell is telling the story, he’s built a show that is hilarious and irreverent. Here’s hoping that when O’Connell gets more seasons, he’ll have space and time to expand his universe.