Netflix’s ‘Special’ Proves the Power of Shows Leaving Their Hooks Behind

·5-min read

As Ryan O’Connell often tells it, the first season of “Special” was a tough sell. Based on his own experiences as a gay man with cerebral palsy, “getting the show made has been a fucking journey,” as he told Variety in 2019. “This might shock you, but putting a gay disabled lead on TV isn’t an instant sell. It takes time, perseverance and a sprinkle of delusion.” Complicating matters was the fact that the show O’Connell wanted to make wouldn’t be the “inspiration porn” that has otherwise defined television’s scant representation of people with disabilities. His gay lead would be funny and kind, sure. But he’d also be a little selfish, self-centered at inconvenient times, and have hot, complicated, explicit sex.

Perhaps in a bid to sell the show to skeptical buyers, O’Connell gave the first season a hook beyond his character’s description. In the first episode, the Ryan of the show gets (lightly) hit by a car on his way to a new job, where he decides to not correct everyone when they assume the accident caused his limp. Ryan spends most of the season terrified that people will find out the truth but eventually ends up “coming out of the disabled closet,” to everyone else’s confusion and his own relief. The secret gives the season a drive and framework, but it also keeps the show from being able to fully be what it wants to be: a hangout show starring a gay man with a disability living his life as a gay man with a disability.

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Freed of the higher concept that defined the first season, the second season of “Special” is exactly that show, and all the better for it.

For as many thousands of TV shows are there seem to be these days, selling a TV show is still and always a game of connections, luck and a buzzy enough hook to keep a room of suits interested. If you can’t sum up a show in a single smart sentence — bonus points if it ends with a twist — then it probably doesn’t stand a chance of making it all the way to the screen. Sometimes, a show will have such a solid idea of where it’s going that it never has to deviate too far from its initial path. More often, though, shows start shedding the premise that once defined them so they can settle into their own developing voices. This holds especially true for comedies, which can live and die by the elusive magic of cast chemistry. It was frustrating to watch and enjoy the first season of “Special” and realize that it only barely had enough time to untangle its own premise, because by the end of it, its characters were more than smart and defined enough to carry the show on their own.

Season 2 of “Special,” which premiered May 20 on Netflix, is also the final season of “Special.” This, having now seen it, is a real shame. Given the chance to flesh this new batch of 8 episodes out from 15 minute episodes into a full-fledged half-hour comedy, O’Connell and his new writers’ room found a groove that suits them — not least because getting to expand upon these stories in a second season allowed them to get past the all-consuming premise that defined the first.

Ryan dates around, with experiences running the gamut from a truly degrading sexual experience to his first real love (Max Jenkins). At some point, he also realizes that he’s never truly had friends with disabilities who can intrinsically understand his experience without him having to explain it; when he stumbles upon a vibrant, funny group that welcomes him with open arms, it comes as a bittersweet relief. The season also gets to expand beyond Ryan with his mother Karen (the excellent Jessica Hecht) understanding her own life beyond her longstanding role as Ryan’s caretaker, and his best friend Kim (Punam Patel) figuring out what she actually wants. (Shoutout to Netflix’s in-house dream boy Charlie Barnett, recurring here as a tech bro with a heart of gold, for making Kim’s decisions all the more difficult.) O’Connell, Patel and Hecht were very good in the first season, but given the chance to explore them in more depth, they all do excellent work in the second season that shows how important it can be for a show to have enough time to develop beyond its initial growing pains.

Watching this season move beyond the “coming out” storyline also makes it clear how much value there is in following characters beyond their coming out stories. Coming out is of course a huge moment for anyone; each story has its own complex shape and arc. But for many, there’s a whole other life to explore that has nothing to do with accepting themselves for who they are. There’s love and joy, heartbreak and pain, fun and laughter that all just has to do with living a life. Giving a character such as Ryan the chance to evolve beyond his own version of “coming out” means giving him a chance to live a life onscreen in a way he couldn’t before. While it’s sad to realize this season is his last, it’s a pleasure to watch unfold.

“Special” is now streaming on Netflix.

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