Special review: Netflix's millennial show about a disabled gay man is too nice for its own good
Special's target audience is millennials, which is made clear in almost every episode. What it is not is a commentary on the difficulties of navigating public spaces as a differently-abled person or even a realistic portrayal of a gay man living with cerebral palsy.
It may be a quest for diversity and representation or just swelling appetite for stories from the fringes, television has long been featuring lead characters that are functionally diverse, differently-abled or on the spectrum. ABC’s Speechless, featuring a cast of a family of rather enjoyable misfits, shows how a speechless child who has cerebral palsy, navigates the world. Netflix’s Atypical has its lead firmly placed on the autism spectrum and have him trail the brutality of growing up as a teenager with an abnormality that makes him socially awkward.
At the outset, Special, the overtly cheerful Netflix show that dropped last week, wants to tread the same line but Special’s lead Ryan, played by Ryan O’Connell, who wrote the show is also, additionally, gay. Feeling smothered by his mother’s micromanagement of his life and general anxiety of being treated special for his (mild) Cerebral Palsy, Ryan wants to break out and shake up his life.
But in the process though, he discovers people are going to treat him special anyway. Though only very loosely based on O’Connell’s 2015 memoir I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, the show's target audience is millennials, which is made clear in almost every episode. What it is not is a commentary on the difficulties of navigating public spaces as a differently-abled person or even a realistic portrayal of a gay man living with palsy. The show is so keen on witty writing and portrayal of progressive gay subcultures, most of its characters feel unidimensional, making it hard to empathise with any in particular.
For instance, Ryan’s major struggles in life include not being able to get on Grindr, not being able to make friends because strangers disappear on him after he tells them about his CP. Ryan believes he is in a limbo because when he says, “I’m not able-bodied enough to be hanging in the mainstream world. But I’m not disabled enough to hang out with the cool PT crowd.” Sadly enough, none of those travails are on focus here, except for a few dialogues. Agreed these issues are millennial enough and can warrant a jolly good sitcom, but the show is too busy being too nice to itself that it can’t throw Ryan into the deep end. When it does, it is to talk about how a hot date with a heart of gold walks out on Ryan because he can’t kiss properly.
Ryan’s new friend Kim, played by Poonam Patel, comes across as extremely patronising even as the character is written to provide bitingly realistic moral support for Ryan. She takes too much freedom with Ryan, crosses some boundaries but hey, it’s all in the name of good sitcom writing. Also, even as she writes body-positive articles about loving her curves, she is secretly weeping inside and seeking constant validation. In one scene, she says: “Sometimes I feel like, as a non-skinny, non-white girl, I got to work overtime. It’s like, 'Hey I’m a voluptuous brown girl but I’m wearing a $448 dress and I got a blowout, so I’m safe. Accept me.'” The show wants you to believe that by casting a self-assured voluptuous brown girl as a sidekick, it has broken some boundaries.
Not to be unfair, there is some boundary breaking in Special. The much-talked about sex scene between Ryan and the sex-worker played by Brian Jordan Alvarez of Will & Grace is one of those. Positive portrayal of sex work, taboo busting sex-positivity (“if you need to have sex, there are people who can help you have sex,” says Punam) – the scene has a lot going for it. Yet, the sex worker ends up being so one-dimensional with such smoothened character traits, the scene fails to spark anything.
Ryan gets hired as an intern at a click-bait site called Eggwoke that produces millennial content where straight white men are diversity hires. It would be a joke if the show weren’t so white enough otherwise.
Designed to be binged in perhaps one sitting with 11-15-minute-long episodes, Special’s highlights are its dialogues. Samples: Ryan on life: “There are two types of people in this world. There are those who get free scones and those who don’t.” Kim on life: “We all put a Valencia filter on our life to make it seem better than actually is.” Ryan’s boss Olivia on offering him a new position: “There will be no health benefits. But let’s be honest. You have so many preexisting conditions, you’d never get covered anyway.” The show attempts to mock the millennial culture but it’s just as millennial, nevertheless (do people really talk in acronyms?).
At the pinnacle of the show, the focus is taken over by Ryan’s own space and dependency issues with his mother. Towards the end in one episode, Ryan’s crush — the well-meaning Carey (Augustus Prew) — squats down to tie Ryan’s shoelaces that embarrasses the latter and leads to him tipping over and fall. That’s when you realise, there really isn’t anything for Ryan for complain at all. Special may be worth your time because you invest too little in it, but unfortunate as it is, it’s not breaking any new grounds even with a gay lead with cerebral palsy.
Special is now streaming on Netflix.
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