In the opening scenes of the new Netflix comedy series Special, one of the first things that our main character Ryan does is trip as he’s walking down the street.
It’s an interesting note to start on; in any other comedy this would be a funny establishing moment for the protagonist, a Hi, I’m cute and kind of a klutz situation. For Ryan, it’s definitely a little bit of that, but it also doubles as a clever way of introducing the audience to the fact that Ryan has cerebral palsy.
In Special, we follow Ryan, a gay man in his late 20s with CP, who is trying to start a career as a writer while navigating family, relationships, and his own insecurities about his disability. In the first episode of the series, Ryan gets hit by a car, an accident that leaves no real lasting damage. However, after casually mentioning this to his new co-worker at the blog he has just started interning for, everyone begins to assume that his disability is actually the result of the accident. Ryan, eager for the chance to feel more “normal” doesn’t correct them.
Though this premise might sound a little wild, it’s actually based on true events. The show is adapted from the memoir I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves by Ryan O’Connell, who stars as the fictionalized version of himself in the series.
Right from the start, Special is pretty different from your average comedy. While characters with disabilities are steadily becoming a little more common in the media, shows centered on characters with disabilities are still rare, and a main character with CP (in a comedy no less) is, quite literally, unheard of. Not only does Ryan have CP, but his relationship with his disability is unapologetically complex.
In the first episode, Ryan notes how, because his CP is a mild case, he doesn’t quite feel like he fits in anywhere. He tells his physical therapist,
“It’s like, I’m not able-bodied enough to be hanging in the mainstream world. But I’m not disabled enough to be hanging out with the cool PT crowd.”
With that conversation in mind, it’s not so surprising that, when the opportunity comes for Ryan to hide that he has CP, he takes it. By the end of the series, Ryan finds himself having to sit down and ask himself whether he might have internalized ableism. It’s the kind of unexpected perspective that we rarely see in stories about characters with disabilities, and a great example of why it’s important to have more stories that showcase these different points of view — and that do so without judgment.
Another unique thing about the show is the way that it handles Ryan’s sexuality. So many shows with queer characters still spend most of their time either focusing on characters coming out or otherwise stressing out about their sexuality.
While those stories are absolutely important, it’s also important to show more examples of LGBTQ+ people living their lives after the initial coming out period. While Ryan is still navigating how he feels about his disability, he’s comfortable with his sexual identity.
What’s more, the series is frank about it in a way so many other shows still refuse to be. Not only does the show talk about the realities of Ryan trying to figure out romance, it also gives us a refreshingly honest scene where Ryan decides to have sex for the first time with a sweet sex worker. In a TV landscape where honest depictions of queer sexuality are still wildly hit or miss, that scene is a pretty groundbreaking moment.
In addition to the depictions of romantic relationships, the show also does an amazing job of showing us how Ryan navigates his relationship with his mother. By the end of the season, both characters are at odds with each other, but the show makes the smart decision not to place blame for the situation on either character. Just because Ryan has a disability doesn’t mean that he’s incapable of being self-centered. Likewise, while Ryan’s mother is overprotective in many ways, the show consistently empathizes with her and her situation (which includes a truly excellent romantic subplot). There is no easy solution, and the show doesn’t try to create one.
And that’s one of the best things about Special. Despite everything that Ryan and the other characters go through, the show never really tries to provide an easy answer. Dealing with insecurity is hard. Relationships take time. And learning to accept yourself, if that means letting yourself become more comfortable with a disability or something else about yourself, can be a lifelong process.
In its first (and very short) first season, Special doesn’t profess to have all of the answers. Ryan gets to be a work-in-progress, and that in and of itself is a beautiful thing.
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