Based on Ryan O’Connell’s memoir, I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, Special is an American comedy also written by and starring O’Connell as he explores life as a young gay man with mild cerebral palsy.
With a gentle soundtrack and large dashes of snark, Special is aiming for an uplifting warm comedy aimed at millennials and for the most part gets it. O’Connell is a 28 year old gay virgin who has lived with this mother his entire life. When he gets hit by a car it inspires him to get out there and try and forge new experiences.
He gets an internship at an online magazine, makes a friend, and dips his toe into the dating world with nervous trepidation. The fact that everyone chalks up his limp and other ailments as due to the car accident rather than cerebral palsy lets him rebrand himself away from automatic sympathy.
There are parts of Special, especially at the start, where the dialogue is clunky. Characters announce themselves and their bullet point defining traits for us right away rather than unfurling naturally. Episode 1 is so keen to establish itself that it may discourage the casual viewer. And whilst Ryan feels free at not having to operate under the cerebal palsy (CP) label when he doesn’t mention it, it still strikes as odd considering it’s pretty clear that no character is going to judge him for it.
However, it isn’t long before you realise that, much like Ryan himself, the CP is part of the show but not the whole thing. Ryan’s friendship with ‘proud of my curves’ Kim is sweet even if her 100% encouragement makes her rather a two-dimensional character. His angst about his lack of dating experience leads to a very matter of fact scene in which he visits a friendly sex worker. The sheer sense of normality (even if it comes from a place of nervousness) of this is indicative of the levels of millennial wokeness of the show. Such parts do ring genuine rather than cynical though.
Ryan’s attention-grabbing headlines working at Eggwoke (a thinly veiled pastiche of Buzzfeed) are the weakest as they revolve around walking bitch editor Olivia. Olivia’s mean dialogue and blindness to criticism is a stock character trope that feels easy and unoriginal. The humour throughout the show is better when it derives from snappy call and response dialogue than reacting to a plastic gargoyle.
Even though the show is ostensibly about Ryan, the second half of the series focuses increasingly on his mother, Karen. Their relationship is the stand out element. Ryan’s new found independence impacts on her co-dependent relationship with him. His selfish self-absorption at the impact he has on her empty nesting builds up a nice dramatic edge.
Don’t be put off by Special’s initial eagerness to prove itself. It settles into an affectingly warm story that left me wanting more at the end.
Words by Michael Record