A somehow universally relatable show about a lonely gay man with cerebral palsy
Most people probably wouldn’t expect to deeply identify with a show exploring the life of a lonely gay man with cerebral palsy, yet somehow, Netflix’s Special is a finely-crafted, entirely unexpected bundle of relatability. The first season of the loosely autobiographical show shyly slid onto the landscape with a wee handful of fifteen minute episodes, yet managed to snag a surprising four Emmy nominations. With its second (and lamentably final) season, Special expands, broadening its run-time, storytelling and even its emotional heft.
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During the first season, Ryan (played by creator Ryan O’Connell) realizes the limits his exceedingly codependent relationship with his mother place on his life, and sets out to change for the better. A misunderstanding at work leads everyone to believe his obvious “otherness” stems from a car wreck rather than his cerebral palsy. He rolls with it, then doesn’t know how to stop. Along the way, he befriends his office’s luminous big-spender Kim (Punam Patel), a fiery woman with secrets of her own. The two bond, a sex worker takes his virginity, and things with his mom blow up big time. It’s a veritable Marvel Cinematic Universe of exceedingly-delicate, contained, achingly-real human experience.
Season two picks up with a newly independent Ryan venturing into the dating pool, where he immediately morphs from being merely an inexperienced dater into an inexperienced dater balls deep (so to speak) in an open relationship. Though he often holds himself quite still physically, a multitude of emotions practically sprint across his face as he yearns to accept every curveball his love, who’s deeply committed to a primary, throws his way. Ryan aims for breezy and casual, but his gentle heart is simply too damn delicate; his confusion, hurt, and inability to speak his truth somehow rides the line between situationally comedic and gut-wrenchingly. It feels brand new to see a man struggle with his sex feels and the shifting lines of acceptance and rejection within dating relationships.
While Ryan stumbles across the emotional terrain of modern dating, his lonely mother (Jessica Hecht) fitfully searches for her long ago shelved sense of self. She comes to terms with her mother’s painful dementia, and inadvertently becomes as a beacon for nearby broken women to step in to exploit her gentle nature and the open space in her heart.
At work, Ryan struggles to focus on his writing, while Kim struggles to pay her bills. When a casual fling turns real, Kim also finds herself unbalanced, and not just from the high heels of the Louboutins her lover gifts to her. Her ensuing karaoke birthday party features perhaps the saddest, most hilarious Lil’ Kim song ever sung. Special constantly finds fresh ways to feel like a television show tonally inspired by a Morrissey song.
This show should be the reason we all drink, but instead, it’s the reason we hold up our glasses and say, “Cheers!” Though Special is only like Seinfeld insofar as it’s about an awkward man in a major city going on dates and sharing the deets with a female bestie, each episode’s payoff feels similar. One small theme builds on itself throughout, until that last second, when damn, it hits you with its overall cleverness. Similarly, Ryan isn’t a filthy perverted dumpster fire of a human like Fleabag, yet akin to her, he invites us to witness all his moments, giving us permission to laugh when he’s awkward and wince when he’s sad. And both things happen, sometimes simultaneously.
For a show with such limited content, Special manages to make an impact. It’s almost British in the way it quietly, politely unfolds, giving each line, scene, and character space. It also dares you to keep a stiff upper lip. But you most certainly will not.