Created by Ryan O’Connell
Starring Ryan O’Connell, Jessica Hecht, Punam Patel
Ryan Hayes (Ryan O’Connell) is the kind of character who would hate the idea of a series revolving around him being described as “special.” Chafing under a lifetime of condescension due to his cerebral palsy and insecurity due to his average homosexuality, Ryan gets hit by a car and sees it as a gift from the universe. People start ascribing his physical infirmities to the accident, you see, and Ryan feels he has an opportunity to start from scratch—he immediately lands an internship at an ironically soulless confessional webzine named “eggwoke,” starts scouting for his own apartment, and makes new connections.
But “special” is exactly what this new Netflix series is: a funny, sometimes acidic, contemplation on what it means to be an outsider. Based on the creator/lead actor’s memoir I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, Special bears an unfortunate surface resemblance to another Netflix dramedy with its foundations in a main character’s physical impediment, Atypical, but thankfully eschews any trace of schmaltz or patronizing views on “empowerment.” Instead, Special finds its voice in Ryan O’Connell’s sly and precise humor, no doubt honed by years of writing on landmark sitcoms like Will & Grace and MTV’s Awkward.
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Special is both revolutionary and expansive—which is saying a lot, considering that only two of its eight episodes run upwards of the 15-minute mark. The show relishes every opportunity to portray its lead character as selfish, and revels in the awkwardness of every milestone. In the pilot, Ryan kvetches to his physical therapist that another patient with more catastrophic disabilities has it easier, because at least he knows where he belongs and how to act. He has his long-suffering mother Karen (Jessica Hecht) help prepare his new apartment for a housewarming party, and then shoos her away because she isn’t invited. And in a memorable sequence, Ryan decides to hire a sex worker to get rid of his pesky virginity, and the ensuing sex scene is so unflinchingly told that the initial uneasiness morphs into epiphany.
And yet O’Connell (who wrote all eight episodes) is also generous enough to turn the spotlight on the women in his life. The first friend he makes in his new job is Kim (Punam Patel), an ostensibly self-loving writer whose essays generate the most views, but whose curves still elicit feelings of insecurity. The meatiest subplot goes to Karen, a single, middle-aged mother who is forced to redefine her wants and needs now that the son she has built her world around is leaving the nest. Hecht is a fine character actress with birdlike physicality, and she often gives you the impression that Karen is as fragile and gawky as her physically infirm son. But when Karen is given an episode to explore—and ultimately botch—an affair with a next-door neighbor (Patrick Fabian), Hecht’s instincts as an actor turn out to be razor-sharp.
Special is a comedy predicated on the idea that freedom—from handicap, from other people’s misperceptions, from suffocating relationships—is both seductive and scary. Which is an ingenious premise, given that all of the episodes run a brisk and disciplined 15 minutes or shorter. (You can binge the entire series in under two hours and still have plenty of Holy Week lazing to do.) The situations portrayed are messy, but the humor is laser-focused. Anna Dokoza’s direction is still finding its footing—sometimes a reaction held for too long or a gag overemphasized gives Special the vibe of an amateurish web series than a polished Netflix production—but these kinks in rhythm will work themselves out if the streaming giant renews Special for more seasons. And it should—Special is too special not to be given a chance to tell its story.
Special is currently streaming on Netflix.
Photographs from IMDB