Netflix’s new series Special follows the life of Ryan Hayes (Ryan O’Connell), a 20-something gay man with cerebral palsy. He lives with his mother Karen (Jessica Hecht aka Susan from Friends) and begins interning for an online magazine called EggWoke. The series is semi-autobiographical and based on O’Connell’s memoir, ‘I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves.’ O’Connell was hit by a car and let people believe his limp was due to this instead of his cerebral palsy, which is a storyline the series explores. Having gay and disabled people tell their own stories tends to come across as more authentic and comforting to others, which is something Special achieves easily. O’Connell didn’t see any see any characters or stories on screen that reflected his reality, so he created his own.
Instead of being a depressing depiction of disability like film and TV often portray, Special uses humour to make the subject matter more accessible. Humour is also a powerful tool that many use as a coping mechanism, which is greatly valued by those with chronic illness and disabilities. It’s an uplifting and refreshing take on these stories, and comments on the fact that disabled people are just like everyone else – they can laugh and be in on the joke. Not only are physical disabilities rarely shown on screen (at least not in a positive light), but cerebral palsy is one that is highly under-represented. The only other example that springs to mind is RJ Mitte’s character in Breaking Bad.
Ryan’s cerebral palsy is described as mild, but this itself causes difficulties for him. In the opening episode, Ryan very quickly tells his trainer that “It must be nice to be so disabled sometimes. I feel like having a mild disability is like being biracial.” Despite his trainer explaining this was an offensive thing to say, it’s a clear way to summarise what having a mild and/or invisible condition is like. All illnesses and disabilities affect people in different ways and vary in severity, but most of the time people aren’t taken seriously if their condition is hard to spot or isn’t as bad as other peoples. This is an important message that the series delivers within a matter of minutes.
The series is also told through a very modern and millennial point of view. Ryan interns at EggWoke, an online magazine which massively taps into our culture of online journalism with exploitative and personal essays used as clickbait. Ryan’s new work BFF Kim (played by the incredible Punam Patel) is a fierce highlight. Her ‘thing’, as one of the website’s most popular writers, is writing about body confidence as a plus-sized woman. Everyone can relate to having a stuck-up boss too, as Ryan’s boss Olivia (Marla Mindelle) is so egotistical that she sings her own happy birthday song to herself. Her character is fantastic and is reminiscent of June Diane Raphael’s role as Brianna in Grace and Frankie.
Special isn’t afraid to take common film-making tropes and utilise them in ways that speak to gay men and disabled people. At one point there’s a close-up of Ryan’s legs when he’s walking, which is a typical shot that is used to convey travel or draw attention to an attractive female character. But in this instance it highlights Ryan’s disability which forces people to pay attention to it. Many tend to feel uncomfortable when presented with someone who is disabled, and are afraid to stare, but this is a good way to get people to really take in Ryan’s normalcy – this is just his life and there’s no need to pity him.
Unlike Ryan’s desire to hide his disability from others, his gayness is something that he’s always been comfortable with. For once, this is a series that explores a gay man coming out of a very different closet as gayness is normalised entirely. Entering a pool party, we usually see sexy, sun-kissed shots of gorgeous women in swimsuits, but from Ryan’s point of view as a gay man, we instead get the same sequence but with a focus on men as opposed to women. This will be very noticeable to many of us who are familiar with the typical conventions of heterosexual-driven scenes.
The way gay sex is shown on screen is also quite revolutionary considering it’s usually full of overused cutaways, as in a film like Call Me By Your Name. Anal sex is hardly ever addressed as it typically makes people feel uncomfortable, but Special isn’t bothered if you’re uncomfortable or not, as it favours the portrayal of realistic experiences. Ryan pays for a sex worker which helps to normalise sex work and shows that disabled people are also entitled to joyful sexual experiences. The scene is respectful, full of lube and is a pleasant event for Ryan. It’s not very often we see gay characters losing their virginity on screen, especially not as positively as we usually see heterosexual characters losing theirs.
Special focuses heavily on the relationships Ryan has with others, most notably Kim and his mother Karen. Karen is a mesmerising character who really shines when she gets an episode of her own. She has dedicated her life to taking care of her disabled son, which has led to her becoming an overbearing mother. However, she is entitled to have her own fun and freedom which is something the series explores. Disability is something that can be hard on those on either side of the coin, and it’s valuable to acknowledge that. Overall, Ryan and Karen have a lovely relationship and this insight into their family life is rewarding to watch unfold.
O’Connell was sure to cast gay actors in roles in order to support them and create more diversity within the industry. It’s not that he doesn’t think straight people can’t play gay characters, but rather that he knows “a lot of talented gay actors that don’t have the same opportunities as straight actors because they’re gay, and that’s just the world we live in.”
Special is a coming-of-age series about wanting to hide parts of yourself and feeling like you don’t fit in. You don’t have to have cerebral palsy to be able to relate to some of its core themes, which is something O’Connell also wanted to make clear. However, the on-screen representation is extra special for those who are disabled or chronically ill (and even gay). It tackles a lot – including internalised ableism – in its eight episodes which range from only 12 to 17 minutes. Special doesn’t overstay its welcome, but it still manages to set a high precedent for what Hollywood should be aiming for when trying to diversify the stories they’re telling.
by Toni Stanger
Toni Stanger is a film and screenwriting graduate with a passion for cats, horror films and middle-aged actresses. Her favourite films include Gone Girl, Heathers, Scream and Excision. You can find her on Twitter and Letterboxd.