Witty and poignant, this comedy series is a groundbreaker.
The genius of the new Netflix show called “Special” is not in its situational comedy type setup about a gay writer with cerebral palsy (CP), but with its stars. It’s cast is so rich with talent it should be patented.
Ryan O’Connell, who has CP himself, is the brains behind this show, he serves as writer, executive producer, and star. The series is based on his memoir “I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves" and is also produced by Jim Parsons, star of "The Big Bang Theory."
But let's unbox this very layered series, first with O'Connell himself. In the beginning, we find out that he has just been hired as an intern at the millennial nouveau niche blogging site Eggwoke whose publisher Olivia (Marla Mindelle) represents everytroll with her insensitive and abusive comments aimed directly at her writer's insecurities. When Ryan walks into the pitch meeting the very first day she immediately lays into him with verbal abuse and callous disregard of his disability.
That's not entirely her fault, instead of telling everyone he has CP, Ryan lies and says his debilitated gait and speech are the result of being hit by a car. This gains no sympathy from Olivia who continues her tirade at his expense. To be fair no one is safe from her scope, she makes Miranda Priestly look like employee of the year. "Are you ever going to get better, or is this it for you?" Olivia asks referring to what she says is his "weird sad limp."
Determined to be respected without sympathy, Ryan becomes co-dependant of her cruelty. This symbiosis is nothing new living with Karen, his loving overprotective mother, played impeccably by Jessica Hecht.
All is not lost though as Ryan makes friends with staff writer Kim (Punam Patel) a no-nonsense plus- size empowered woman who writes successful and frank columns about positive body image. This isn't just who she is behind the keyboard either, in real life Kim is bold and confident, something Ryan uses as a tether in social situations.
Inspired by her energy, Ryan challenges himself to face things such as his own body image, his (anal) virginity and moving out to live on his own. A certain explicit but sensitive scene with him bottoming for the first time is one for the history books; we've all been there.
His mother's arc is also complicated. She is struggling with guilt about her growing resentment of Ryan who she has cared for his entire life. It's been especially stifling since his father left them and the honesty in which it unfolds is uncomfortable but empathetic.
What is so great about "Special" aside from its unflinching look at people with disabilities and their trek through the world of Cain and Abelism, is that it is also relatable to queer folk
Ryan is double-judged: He has CP and he's gay. The latter is already a tough environment to endure with its harsh and judgmental Grindr preferences and prejudices. Having a disability only compounds the issue, Ryan uses his secret about CP as a metaphor for a second coming out.
The fact that Ryan is handsome himself -- he has a near-perfect smile that lights up his bespectacled face, school-boy haircut parted at the left, and dimpled chin -- makes you question whether you are attracted to him physically or sympathetically. It's tough to determine and that's why this series is a must-watch, it challenges you to confront your own preferences and why you choose them. Ryan is a smart, funny, handsome guy who happens to have a disorder and who himself is just as judgy.
In Ryan's words, "It's hard out here for a gimp."
"Special" isn't your Facts of Life, Geri Jewell, self-deprecating guest starring episode. No, Ryan's story is TV-MA through and through which uses sex, foul language and sometimes drugs to showcase journeys of self-empowerment.
O'Connell has a knack for writing with his pen firmly in cheek. His use of puns, cultural references, and zinging bon mots is remarkable. For example, after cracking eggs successfully into a glass bowl he calls himself the "Bareback Contessa." It's also funny because you don't expect it coming from such an angelic face.
Director Anna Dokoza isn't making this a preachy series about living with CP or even being gay. She handles O'Connell's material with a gallant approach that really does feel groundbreaking.
Once you realize she's produced some of the best shows on television including "Flight of the Conchords," "Baskets" and "Insecure," you understand Dokoza is not shy about pushing envelopes, bundles of them.
My only complaint would be that the series has only eight episodes at about 15 minutes each. Two hours is not enough time to spend with these characters and there's an emotional cliffhanger ending that comes too soon.
Filled with relatable characters, engaging dialogue and bitter observations, "Special" is enriched by its talented cast who elevate it above and beyond the gimmicky, sitcom-like logline.
It's reassuring that Netflix continues to add diverse and quality content to its service amid a price increase and canceled shows. "Special" is well worth the cost of both.
"Special" arrives on Netflix April 12.