When scrolling through Netflix’s recent catalogue, it’s gratifying to see a lot of content focusing on under-represented minorities, especially in genres that are commonly concentrated on white, straight stories of privilege. While some, such as Pose and Everything Sucks!, manage to establish effective narratives of inclusion, others, such as Insatiable, fail miserably and feed into dangerous prejudice. It’s a relief that Special – the world’s first dramedy series about a young gay man with cerebral palsy – is not only respectful towards its subject, but also conscious of other struggles surrounding him.
A few months before starting an internship at ‘Eggwoke‘, a manic Buzzfeed equivalent that works hard for their viewer count, Ryan gets hit by a car. While he quickly recovers from the accident and slowly gains independence through his new job and a new flat, there are still quite a lot of hurdles he has to face in relation to his disability. Since his is a comparatively light case, it doesn’t hinder him at all times and since he refuses to let himself be defined by it, he refrains from talking about it, which finally leads to him not correcting his peers at work – who then think that his motoric limitations stem from the accident. Meanwhile, his mother (a great turn by Jessica Hecht) is struggling to cope with Ryan’s overbearing new confidence and tries to balance out her anxiety about Ryan’s life by giving new impulses to her own. Of course, complications are predestined.
This setup already portrays how much integrity this perspective has towards its central character – writer and lead Ryan O’Connell, himself diagnosed with cerebral palsy, obviously knows what he’s talking about and delves into his protagonist’s life with an impressive amount of unforced millennial humor and character nuance. This is especially remarkable given the episode’s hyper-short 15-minute runtime and the amount of tonal balance that some of the narrative demands. While Ryan is nothing but loveable, he is a bit too much in his own head and invested in his anxieties at times; but his actions and reactions are always understandable. This complexity in particular and the concession to let characters have flaws enrich the show. Ryan’s most important relationships and his efforts to maneuver them make up the main chunk of the show’s narrative threads. Besides his mother, who internally struggles with his and her own independence, new people enter his life. Kim (Punam Patel) grows from being one of Ryan’s co-workers, to one of his best friends and while he struggles to open up to her, they support each other nonetheless. These characters co-exist in complete equality and their stories intersect in ways that not are not always positive, but never come from malignity.
Special’s grand virtue is honesty and its recognition of the complicated in every situation. It’s is a great piece of representation, because Ryan is not merely a concept, but a fully-fleshed out and vivid human being, and it’s a great show, because it gives us these fantastic characters and their lives in such a concise and entertaining way. As Ryan finally starts to get in touch with his sexuality, things finally become clear to him – he has to confront and love himself with all of his attributes and there is nothing that he has to hide in order to be liked by the right people. His journey will continue if the Netflix audience wants this to happen; with its ideal train-ride runtime and broad accessibility, the future seems bright for the show.