Special is a groundbreaking piece of entertainment.
Based on the memoir by Ryan O’Connell, I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, the new Netflix series is centered on a gay man in his 20s with cerebral palsy — a perspective that was previously absent from the mainstream media landscape.
O’Connell, who created, wrote, and stars in Special, shows viewers how even everyday tasks like walking can be complicated by having a disability. Afraid of being outed as having a disability to his coworkers at a blog with a cutthroat demand for viral articles (based on O’Connell’s experiences at The Thought Catalog content farm; "I hated it there," the writer recounted to The Advocate with a shudder), Ryan blames his gait on a car accident. Naturally, his editor forces him to write about the accident in her mission to mine for page views.
There's also the complicated matters of the heart. It’s not easy dating as a gay man in the already body-dysmorphic city of Los Angeles — a pool party scene of men with sculpted physiques will leave many viewers with anxiety. But Ryan’s own insecurities with his body and disability present unique challenges to finding love.
However, the representation of a gay man with cerebral palsy is not the only aspect of Special that's special. The series parallels Ryan’s quest for love with his mother’s search for the same. "There's a lot of similarities about what they're going through, but you're seeing it from two different stages of life, which I thought was kind of interesting to me," said O'Connell, who pointed to his own "mommy issues" as a reason for the dual storylines.
Much like Ryan is based on the experiences of the show's creator, Ryan's mother, Karen (Jessica Hecht), is inspired by O'Connell's parent. On Special, Karen has to come to terms with the reality that her son —whose care she has devoted most of her life to — is moving out, getting a job, and looking to be more independent. Concurrently, she also begins a relationship with a handsome neighbor — and like Ryan, she is finally able to have a sex life.
Although Karen is rooted in reality, the character also represents a form of "wish fulfillment" for O'Connell on what his mother deserves from life.
"I feel like my mom is someone who has always lived her life for everybody else but herself. She's the least selfish person I know," said O'Connell. "But then part of that makes me sad, because I think about the things that my mom wants because, hello, we're human and everybody has basic wants and desires. What would she want if she actually gave herself permission to go after it?"
That Karen has so much screen time — and is so three-dimensional of a character — was important for O'Connell, who penned every episode by himself. (As a writer on the revival of Will & Grace, he historically worked within the context of a writer's room. Special presented an opportunity for more independence but it was also "a little stressful" not having that group feedback, O'Connell admitted.)
In addition to Karen's sex life, Special shows the pressure she faces as a single working mother caring for a child with special needs. The picture isn't always pretty, particularly when her affection for the two men in her life causes conflict. But for O'Connell, who praised the "unique brand of cookie warmth" that Hecht brought to the role, this honesty with her struggle is what makes her human.
"I really wanted to avoid from the traditional network multi-cam [trope] of like 'helicopter mom,'" said O'Connell. "They're like, Ryan, pick up your clothes. Like a nag. That truly is bone-chilling to me.
"I just fell in love with her character and her journey and you really, really root for her and you kind of understand why she took a back seat to her own life. But also you can explore her resentment [that] she feels towards Ryan, which is very real and it doesn't make her a bad mom, you know?"
While Karen represents a "wish fulfillment" for O'Connell on behalf of his mother, he would not necessarily say the same for the fictionalized version of himself, Ryan. "This character I'm playing is truly arrested development. And he's very awkward," said O'Connell, who recalled how his entire physicality shifted after being fitted in Ryan's quirky fashion and "clunky shoes."
Yet, there are many parallels. Both experienced many of the same insecurities about their disability — including being in the closet about it — and O'Connell also struggled with dating for most of his 20s. His own obstacles to finding love, he discovered, were largely internal.
"I didn't have anal sex for 10 years, which I would not recommend to literally anybody," said O'Connell. "I would occasionally go on dates, but I was so nervous about my disability and guys being turned off.
"Whenever [relationships] would get too real, I would run away like skid marks in the driveway. I had intimacy issues up the wazoo. It was sort of this thing of me being like, Why won't anyone date me? And then I would finally find someone and be like, Oh my God, I need to get out of here."
O'Connell, who is in his early 30s now, has had a relationship for the past four years, which he describes as "emotionally healthy." This relationship represents a large amount of personal growth for the writer, who feels fortunate to have found love. "I feel very lucky every day. I do," he said. "I feel very lucky that I gave myself permission to be loved by someone like him."
Special, whose first eight-episode season premiered Friday, has yet to explore the intricacies of a long-term relationship. Ryan is still struggling to bring himself to have a real date — although, in one remarkable episode, he loses his virginity to a sex worker portrayed by Brian Jordan Alvarez (Will & Grace). This scene, where the gay sex is not glossed over, was inspired by O'Connell's real-life experiences.
"I've used sex workers before, but I didn't lose my virginity to a sex worker," said O'Connell. "I didn't start using sex workers I think until I got a boyfriend, ironically. ... I think they do an incredible service. I've always been fascinated by the work that they do and by the kind of different flavors of experience you can have with them."
Through Special, O'Connell set out to destigmatize sex work as well as gay sex. In fact, he expressed frustration with the lack of it in mainstream television and film. Inspired by HBO's Girls, which showed how sex among straight people can be complicated, O'Connell wanted to depict that level of sex complexity for the gay community.
"I don't know why people are still afraid of gay sex," he said. "I don't know why gay sex can't be shown for what it is, which is, awkward, funny, sexy, embarrassing — sometimes all at the same time, within two minutes."
In addition to bringing a more realistic representation of gay sex to television, O'Connell is also hoping to bring a positive representation for those with disabilities. This effort is evident in the film's layered title, Special.
"I'm just basically reclaiming the power of that word," said O'Connell on what it means to be special — a word he felt was once used to shame him. "I use it to feel empowered rather than feel like a baby with brain damage.
"I think feeling special is a powerful thing," he concluded. "And it doesn't mean that you're narcissistic or entitled. It just means that you realize that you have value in this world and that you have something to say and it's worth listening to."
Special is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer below.