Given the sheer volume of TV shows that are out there demanding my attention while I gorge my eyes on movies with a zeal that would make Lucille Ball’s chocolate-eating clown blush, it’s almost a miracle that I managed to catch a little show called Special. Special came recommended to me cautiously by friends who know I have a low tolerance for idiot television and shows that eventually morph into bloated, unrelatable behemoths that overstay their welcome and still try to squeeze out every drop from its cache of stories by making tie-in movies and spin-offs because that seems to be the only way out of a creative rut. Checking the run time of each of Season 1’s episodes (on average, 15 minutes), I decided to give it a go and see what the fuss was.
Well, reader, I stand corrected. Let me put it to you this way: I didn’t just binge-watch the first season in one massive gulp but went into the second (and, to date, last) season of Special. I said to myself, here was a show that got it. While it might be based on Ryan O’Connell’s life, it also portrayed a young thirty-something in a manner I could have never anticipated in the days of Will and Grace or even the over-sexed Queer as Folk (I’m going quite a ways back, people.). Special gives you not a ravishing gay man who looks airbrushed to death and is played by an actor who can’t play a mannequin (which would be a stretch for the pretty), but a super-cute gay guy who just happens to have cerebral palsy.
The CP part gets downplayed early in the show’s first season as Ryan (Ryan O’Connell), just employed by the online blog eggwoke, informs his nightmare boss Olivia (Marla Mindelle, an actress trapped in a one-note, viciously stereotypical role) that his limp is the result of an automobile accident that left him this way. Olivia flat-out pretends to sympathize but exploits Ryan’s “accident” for page views.
In the interim, Ryan navigates his attempts at becoming independent from his over-protective mother Karen (Jessica Hecht, criminally underrated) who is also going through her own issues of being an older woman who meets an attractive neighbor (Patrick Fabian) while navigating taking care of Ryan and tending to her own demanding, senile mother in a story arc that mirrors into itself. The show’s 15-minute length is perfect to give us a snapshot into Ryan’s life as a newly independent millennial: in one episode, a housewarming party that would have involved his “friends” morphs into a poignant get-together with recent BFF Kim (Punam Patel, who is a stand out in this show). In another episode, Ryan has a rather tender moment with an escort (Brian Jordan Alvarez) who Ryan has contacted to help him lose his virginity.
It probably is inevitable that Special veers into soap territory, but never fully goes there. It is possible that the only way to develop Ryan and Karen’s codependent relationship was to add a few monkey-wrenches that would eventually bring the two to a clash, but the narrative actually deepens what could have been a rather superficial show. That storyline will get played out during season 2 which expands its episodes’ runtime to almost 25 minutes and fleshes out Kim’s character to be not just the sidekick but a fully-developed Indian-American woman going through financial hardships and the pressures of being/looking successful in a world that would demand she look flawless (and white, and thin).
If the show lacks some depth it’s essentially in Ryan’s workplace. Everyone in eggwoke seems to be a cartoon. A tangential character, Samantha (Gina Marie Hughes) has a voice so squeaky and a demeanor that makes her resemble something out of Salad Fingers — sad, with a trembling appearance and huge eyes. Olivia… well. The show thinks that having her creates some kind of contrast in her rampant, outlandish sociopathy, and perhaps at one or two appearances she would have been enough, but she is in almost every episode, and her presence snuffs the light out of what is an outstanding show that loves its main characters.
What I admire the most of Special is Ryan himself. O’Connell has written him not as a put-upon millennial trying to make it in the writing world but as someone who can be petty, self-centered, and even a bit flakey. He’s so bulldozed into getting his independence that he completely obliterates his mother’s importance — although, in his defense, Karen, who has not had a life of her own since she can remember, has projected everything onto Ryan in such a way that a separation would be inevitable. I loved that she also gets to have quite the storyline later in Season 2 as her character somewhat resolves a romantic situation and eventually comes to grips with her own mortality through the death of a loved one. Hecht truly lets her character breathe out in the moments she gets to explore her inner pain, and this gives Special much-needed depth.
I hope that O’Connell can negotiate a third season. It seemed that come Season 2 Special was getting into its groove of discomfort, with Ryan falling in love with a guy (Max Jenkins) who happens to be involved with someone else, and then flirts with another (Buck Andrews) who is also comfortable in being gender non-conforming and also is autistic. However, if two seasons is all there is, then so be it; this is an excellent show with a great cast that finally gives me characters I want to see more of on TV.