With all of the fanfare surrounding Netflix’s new additions including Queer Eye and Our Planet, you’d be forgiven if you missed them quietly adding a new comedy series, titled Special.
However, after watching all eight episodes in the space of one afternoon, we’re here to tell you that it is a must-watch.
Written and starring memoirist Ryan O’Connell as a young gay man living with cerebral palsy, the show sees his character attempting to take the reins of his life, and dealing with the way he’s viewed by those around him.
It’s moving, it’s funny, and it’s generally really, really lovely. Here’s why you need to tune in immediately…
1. More diversity is always a good thing
Since it made the shift to creating original content, Netflix has repeatedly won praise for its diverse approach to storytelling.
While the streaming service is obviously not perfect (putting an abrupt end to shows like Sense8 and One Day At A Time while forking out to hold onto a 20-year-old sitcom about six straight white folks, for example), there’s no denying that Special is a great example of Netflix giving a platform to a voice that we wouldn’t usually get to hear in mainstream television.
Not only is Special about a young man navigating the world with cerebral palsy, the story also sees him searching for his place within the gay community as somebody with a disability.
2. Special doesn’t sugar coat anything
Some of the humour in Special might verge on cheesy at times, but the show itself doesn’t shy away from getting real about issues relating to having a disability and being a minority within the LGBTQ+ community.
We won’t spoil anything for you by getting into the specifics, but certain scenes reveal just how reliant on his mother Ryan has become at 27 years old, and how this has affected their relationship.
Away from Ryan, the show also explores how having a son with a disability has affected his mum’s life, while his friend Kim gives us all a reminder that the smiles and gloss we see on someone’s Instagram Stories and blog posts doesn’t always give us a true indication as to what’s going on in their lives.
3. The show has a refreshing attitude to sex
When it comes to mainstream shows with LGBTQ+ characters, realistic sex scenes are few and far between (the last time we remember being particularly impressed with a gay sex scene was the Australian show Please Like Me, a full four years ago).
Much has been made of a sex scene involving Ryan in the show’s third episode, and there’s a reason for that – it’s really, really good, and will hit home for a lot of gay people, in a way that other shows who have attempted to portray same-sex relationships on screen have not.
Not only is the realism refreshing – how often do we actually get to see someone retrieving a bottle of lube on screen? – the moment tackles the act of having sex with a disability brilliantly, and also takes a no-shame approach to sex work, again rarely done on mainstream shows.
Plus, we’re always happy to see Brian Alvarez (best known for his fast-paced and hilarious web series The Gay And Wondrous Life Of Caleb Gallo), who brings his usual charisma to his Special character.
4. There’s a very relatable family storyline
Yes, Special is a show about disability with a gay character at its centre, but the real heart of the show is the relationship between Ryan and his mother, Karen.
When we first meet the mother-and-son duo, they’re still living together, and spending pretty much all of their free time together too, so when Ryan decides he wants to venture out into the world on his own, gain some independence and reinvent his life, there are obvious repercussions for his mother, who we very quickly see developing empty nest syndrome.
Scenes between Ryan and Karen can flick very quickly between touching and upbeat to strained, heartbreaking and even deeply uncomfortable in the space of an episode, and even if you don’t necessarily identify with the central themes of Special, these are the moments that almost everyone will recognise to some degree.
5. The impressive cast
Ryan O’Connell wrote the book on having mild cerebral palsy and being gay (literally, the show is based on his memoir I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves), so he brings a lot to his namesake character.
Jessica Hecht also brings a lot of heart to her portrayal of Ryan’s mother, Karen, in a way we never got to see her act in her best-known role as Susan, the misunderstood wife of Ross’ ex in Friends.
Elsewhere, we have a lot of love for Punam Patel, who plays the effervescent Kim (and who we previously caught in a brief role in the aforementioned web show Gay And Wondrous Life Of Caleb Gallo), while Breaking Bad’s Patrick Fabian takes on a new romantic role.
And if you’re anything like us, you’ll spend every moment Augustus Prew is on screen trying to work out where you know him from, so we’ll save you a job and tell you he was Rachel Weisz’s son Ali in About A Boy.
6. Although one character in particular totally steals the show for us
Actress Marla Mindelle is a new one to us, but she’s someone we’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for in the future.
In Special, she plays Ryan’s ludicrous boss Olivia, the head of a website aimed at socially-conscious millennials called Eggwoke, who urges her staff to expose their souls in article form to generate clicks and headlines. She’s also a complete scene-stealer, thanks to her Karen Walker-esque lack of awareness about her staff’s feelings, outrageous one-liners (including allusions to her dubious relationship with her cousin) and all-round selfishness.
We promise you, Special is worth watching for her alone.
7. The fashion
A quirky comedy primarily focussing on gay men in West Hollywood, we’re glad to see that Special delivers on the fashion front.
While we get to see leading character Ryan’s personal style develop as his confidence grows across the eight episodes, Punam Patel has plenty of brilliant fashion moments as the high-flying social media influencer Kim.
Even Ryan’s mum Karen gets her own makeover scene, when she discovers the confidence something as simple as a new dress can bring her.
8. The run time
Oh and the best bit? While Netflix has been accused of dragging things out too much in some of their best-known shows (hence the phrase “the Netflix bloat” which critics have been prone to using in recent years), there’s none of that with Special.
Each episode clocks in at an average of just 15 minutes, making it perfect for the commute, and if you’ve got a spare two hours, you can fly through the whole thing. Ideal!
But we have to warn you, the show doesn’t have the happy ending you think it’s going to (potential spoilers ahead)
Special really comes into its own after the third or fourth episode, so we found ourselves blowing through the entire series in the space of an afternoon. What we weren’t anticipating, though, was what a downer the last episode would end up being.
We won’t go into too much detail, but for a show that is predominantly fun, its final moments were jarringly dark, to the point we’re already craving a second series as a palate cleanser.
Special is now available to stream on Netflix.
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