Abigail Fenton 7th June 2019
In your Netflix Originals section, concealed between equally forsaken treasures like One Day at a Time and Sense8, there a hidden gem called Special.
You may not have heard of it, as Netflix doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to promoting its more diverse shows, preferring to instead funnel money into getting teens to watch romanticised suicide show 13 Reasons Why.
Thankfully though, in lieu of actual advertising, I, your TV fairy godmother, am here to tell you to watch it.
Based on the 2015 memoir I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves by Ryan O’Connell, who also stars in, writes and executive produces the series, Special is a funny, affecting comedy about a young gay man with cerebral palsy.
When we meet him, Ryan Hayes is about to start a new job as an intern at a hysterically exploitive blog called Egg-yolk. Egg-yolk is undergoing a “creative facelift”, as the editor, played to perfection by Marla Mindell, puts it, as it’s humour pieces apparently didn’t resonate with its larger audience of “basics”.
Instead they’ve started publishing confessional essays. Six minutes in, this is where I had my first laugh-out-loud moment of the series.
“Samantha, remember when you told everyone about the unexpected orgasm you had during your abortion?” might be a controversial joke, but an unanticipated giggle escaped my mouth before I could even think better of it.
The premise makes for hilariously biting social commentary
This premise also makes for hilariously biting social commentary. Cue one of my favourite exchanges of the whole series:
“Kim, how’s the listicle coming?”
“How to Look Like a Million Bucks? It’s really short. It just says, ‘Have a million bucks.'”
Occasionally, the humour is a bit cringe-worthy. Its attempts to be referential — “I’m just saying, my obituary would have been Bleak Lively, okay?” and “Did Edward Scissorhands open my mail?” — often come off as try-hardy, making you wish they had just left that particular gig to the Gilmore girls, with whom it belongs. Despite this, though, you will often find yourself laughing along, regardless.
Ultimately, Special is a story about a man trying to define himself outside of his disability
Ultimately, Special is a story about an adult man who is trying to find himself outside of his disability, to define himself in other terms. “You don’t understand,” he says, “My whole life, CP has been like the main course, when, really, it just needs to be an appetizer.”
“Your disability is part of you,” his mother replies. “It’s what makes you-“
“Special, I know.”
It also deals with his growing independence from his mother — played by the lovely Jessica Hecht, who you may well know best as Susan from Friends (we love one gay icon) — and how that allows him to explore his sexuality, a topic that arises in episode two.
“Wow, there are a lot of assholes on here,” he remarks, grimacing, as he left-swipes through a Grindr-esque dating app. A cut to a close-up of the phone in his hands reveals he’s talking about literal asshole shots. A few more swipes, though, and Ryan is smiling as he looks at a picture of a potential match’s actual face.
There’s no internal struggle or gut-wrenching coming out scene. Ryan is just gay. “Where there’s a will there’s a gay way,” he quips when asked how he hooks up living with his mum. And as valuable as those stories are, it’s a relief to watch a show about a gay person where their gayness is already an established and accepted part of who they are, so we can explore other avenues of storytelling, because gay people live rich, full and varied lives, guys.
Ryan struggles with internalised ableism, which not only affects his own self-esteem, but causes him to look down on differently disabled people
However, having lived with his mother until the age of 23, Ryan has very little, perhaps nothing, in the way of sexual or romantic experience, causing many interesting — and, for some queer, disabled people who maybe didn’t get to pursue those opportunities until later than their straight, able-bodied peers, painfully relatable, yet hopefully comforting it that relatability — situations to arise.
Special doesn’t fall into the trap of making Ryan a perfect angel afflicted by a painful malady, either. Instead, he’s a fully dimensional person with faults and unlikable qualities. He’s sometimes rude, self-centred and lacks empathy.
Most significantly, though, Ryan struggles with internalised ableism, which not only affects his own self-esteem, but allows him to look down on differently disabled people and treat them badly — it’s a problem he’s working on.
Now, it’s not perfect. In fact, it’s uncomfortably white. Ryan’s new work BFF Kim is the token brown character. But, I suppose, at least she’s nicely fleshed out.
It helps that Kim is plus-size, confident and sexy af. The bar is low, maybe, but you’d still be hard-pressed to find many shows where a plus-size brown woman struts out to a pool party in her bikini, proclaiming, “I need to be seen.” An icon.
Through her, the show address issues such as the expectation that women of colour conform to white European beauty standards, and thin privilege. When a skinny white girl tells Kim, “Reading about someone like you finding things to love about your body? I mean, clearly we have no excuse. If you can do it, so can we,” it’s a harrowing moment, because we’ve all observed, if not been a part of, that interaction.
A stranger who will, without asking, take 40 photos of you until they get the perfect one for the gram? That is a new friend
There is one incredibly inaccurate and unrelatable scene in Special, it has to he said. When Ryan snaps multiple poolside pics for three hot swimming-trunked gay guys, and one snaps, “Are you done?” at him, I had to wonder: Is the writer really a millennial? Has he ever met a millennial in his life? We love options! We want them from four different angles. A stranger who will, without asking, take 40 photos of you until they get the perfect one for the gram? That is a new friend.
Still, if you want this gay’s opinion, the pros overwhelmingly outweigh the cons. And I haven’t even gotten to one of the best ones: Special is especially bingeable as each episode is just 15 easily-digestible minutes long. If you don’t like the first few episodes, you’ve wasted less than an hour. If you do, you could finish in three.
So give it a shot. It could probably use all the help it can get if Netflix is to order a second season, on which it might even spend 50p of its advertising budget.
Abigail Fenton 7th June 2019