Pop Culturing: Netflix Shifts Gears with 'Special,' a Gay Comedy About Being in a Different Kind of Closet

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Friday April 12, 2019

Ryan O'Connell in his show "Special."
Ryan O'Connell in his show "Special."  (Source:Courtesy of Netflix)

"Special" signals a change may be in store for Netflix.

Based on the life and 2015 memoir "I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves" by Ryan O'Connell, the new comedy series, debuting on the streaming service Friday, follows a version of the 31-year-old writer. Like the real O'Connell, the character he plays, Ryan Keyes, is a young openly gay man with cerebral palsy. "Special" tracks Ryan after he scores an internship at a popular blog called Egg Woke as well as his relationship with his single mother Karen (the wonderful Jessica Hecht) as he plans to finally move out of her home.

"Special," where Jim Parsons and his husband Todd Spiewak serve as executive producers, is unlike any other comedy on TV. Not just in terms of content — the show gives a platform to a unique voice with a different outlook on life that's never been shown on the small screen before, but also when it comes to structure. In a way, "Special" feels like a throwback series; something like "High Maintenance" before it aired on HBO and lived online as a popular web series. It's a brisk comedy consisting of eight episodes that clock in at just fifteen minutes each — a first for a Netflix sitcom. That means the first season is two hours in total and plays out like the first two acts of a really long rom-com. It's an easily binge-able watch that can be done in one sitting and the season's bite-size length results in a fresh and lean show, where O'Connell writes all the episodes (he's written for TV before, penning episodes for "Will & Grace") and Anna Dokoza serves as director.

Jessica Hecht with Ryan O'Connell in Netflix's "Special." Photo credit: Courtesy of Netflix

The comedy's short runtime is a testament to how smart and funny "Special" can be. It moves quickly and doesn't waste a moment. The show starts off with Ryan getting involved in a minor car accident, just before he scores his gig at Egg Woke. He's a little bruised but he uses the accident to hide his cerebral palsy from his new coworkers, effectively putting him in a different kind of closet. (This actually happened to O'Connell in real life when he was 20 and detailed the experience for the Thought Catalog at the time.) Though he's comfortable with his sexuality — talking about boys with his mom and his new work BFF Kim (a great performance from Punam Patel), the website's top blogger — Ryan is still struggling with being labeled as "a gay disabled man." He thrives for independence and acceptance but hasn't yet dealt with those issues internally.

Like all sitcoms, a lot of hijinks and tension comes from Ryan's need to keep up the ongoing lie. But the best parts of "Special" are Ryan's relationship between his mother and Kim. Hecht doesn't play Karen as a typical TV mom and O'Connell writes her as a fleshed-out woman, presumably after his own mother. Though she can be overbearing and overprotective of Ryan, she has agency and needs. And like her son, she's got a secret of her own: Karen strikes up a relationship with Phil (Patrick Fabian), her salt-and-pepper haired new next-door neighbor. One part of Karen's life that's underdeveloped is her relationship with her mom, Ryan's grandmother. In one episode, we see Karen, a nurse, taking care of her aging mother and it's an important moment that contextualizes Karen's relationship with Ryan. But she never appears in "Special" again this season, likely leaving viewers wanting a bit more.

Patel's Kim, too, is a fully realized character. A plus-sized woman of color, Kim is mostly an open book and hilarious, but also kind, willing to help Ryan settle into Egg Woke and introduce him to her own friends. The only character on "Special" that feels contrived is Olivia (Marla Mindelle), the editor-in-chief of the website, who is an updated version of Meryl Streep's "The Devil Wears Prada" diva Miranda Priestly.

From left to right: Ryan O'Connell, Punam Patel and Augustus Prew in Netflix's "Special." Photo credit: Courtesy of Netflix

At times "Special" feels like it is set in 2008; at a time when the now-defunct Gawker was one of the most important websites in the world and ruled Internet culture. Ryan says "LOL" out loud (as in, "loll") and the vibe of Egg Woke feels comparable to the fictional magazine in the 2004 romcom "13 Going On 30." That makes sense since O'Connell thrived during the rise of the blogging age but it can be jarring when a character references something modern, like the 2015 film "Room" or car-sharing services making you remember "Special" is set in 2019.

In such a short amount of time, "Special" effortlessly moves from being sweet to being nasty and even shockingly raw. An episode dealing with Ryan's virginity is brave while never getting too saccharine. The season ends on a bit of a clichéd cliff hanger-of-sorts but it doesn't come close to sinking the show. With 15-minute episodes the comedy comes into its own without overstaying its welcome. O'Connell, however, recently told Vulture it wasn't his idea to do short episodes.

"I'm a half-hour bitch, okay? That's what I know. Honey, I don't go chasing 15-minute waterfalls," he explained. "I stick to the rivers and lakes that I'm used to, and that is a 30-minute show, okay? I'm actually really glad that Netflix bought it as is because if they wanted to do a half hour, I'd have to rewrite the entire series and that would not be fun.

"But for season two, mama wants a half hour!" he added.

If Netflix grants "Special" a second season, it'll still be O'Connell's brainchild and interesting if the sitcom and still feel its oats while being twice as long.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.

Comments on Facebook