Being an art and popular media aficionado, whilst simultaneously battling an attention span that lasts all of 0.028 milliseconds – usually means that I struggle with my fair share of cognitive dissonance on a regular basis; which, as you can imagine, is often a source of frustration for anyone who may have the misfortune of watching a movie/play/TV series with me.
Since I often find myself zoning out within mere seconds of the opening credits of movies or TV shows, I am left with a decrepit selection of art than I can actually consume. However, once in a while, a startlingly gripping piece of art saunters along and demands my undivided attention. And for a brief period, time comes to a standstill, as I devour the rich, earthy flavours of subtle nuances, artistic techniques and gripping narratives that the work of art has to offer me. One such television series is the autobiographical Netflix original, ‘Special’ – written by Ryan O’Connell and directed by Anna Dokoza. ‘Special’, a blithe yet profound comedy – is an authentic, first-hand account of O’Connell’s life as a gay man with mild cerebral palsy. The series consists of 8 episodes, all of which last an approximate duration of 15 minutes per episode.
The first episode, ‘Cerebral LOLzy’ introduces Ryan Hayes (played by Ryan O’Connell), an unpaid intern at a “confessional website” called Eggwoke. Ryan is a gay man with mild cerebral palsy, who lives with his mother, Karen (played by Jessica Hecht). Karen juggles between playing the role of Overprotective Mother and Mere Detached Observer – as she experiences frustration at being unable to enjoy her adult life due to Ryan’s medical condition, whilst simultaneously being unable to relinquish her maternal duties.
Ryan, himself, is funny, awkward, and unafraid to unveil his flaws. He goes through life with a silent grit, characteristic of someone who understands that life is tough, and sometimes, you just need to keep on keeping on. Through the series, we witness Ryan’s character develop – from being merely a Gay Disabled Man to… still a gay disabled man, but also someone with his own thoughts and opinions and experiences. While most popular media dehumanizes the protagonist, and reduces them to their sexuality or illness or trauma; Special journeys the road less travelled, by creating an identity, independent of Ryan’s sexuality or disability. This sends across the powerful message that humans beings are multi-faceted and multi-dimensional, and reducing them to merely the melanin quotient of their skin, or the gender of the person they kiss – is a ridiculous concept.
However, the series doesn’t shy away from depicting graphic, uncomfortable details of Ryan’s struggle with Cerebral Palsy, as well as his experience being a gay man in a society that is portrayed as surprisingly tolerant and welcoming of his sexuality. A scene that stands out amidst others, is one where Ryan wears lace shoes for the first time. Upon noticing that his laces are untied, Carey – Ryan’s love interest – bends down to tie his laces for him, resulting in an angry outburst as Ryan yells that he can do it by himself. A heart-breaking, moment that perfectly illustrates the frustration of dependence on other people – Ryan’s exasperation at not being able to perform a basic task by himself is unbelievably raw and honest.
Another exceptional scene that stands out is one where Ryan has sex for the first time with Shea, an attractive sex worker who’s aware of his disability. The scene is graphic and rich in imagery- depicting Ryan’s heart-warming excitement, and pleasure as the two make love. Accustomed to exquisite heterosexual sex in mainstream movies – where flashes of hairless skin, sensual bedroom eyes and passionate moans cloud big screens; the rather uncomfortable grin stretched along Ryan’s mouth and Shea’s constant reassurances as he penetrates Ryan – are a startling reminder of the communication and joy that should ideally come along with sex. This scene is also an assertion that being disabled doesn’t deprive an individual of the ability to experience sexual pleasure.
One of my favourite aspects of this series was the representation it offered by way of a diverse cast that included a homosexual protagonist with Cerebral Palsy; his imperturbable, self-assured co-worker, Kim (played by Punam Patel) – who is also a plus-sized woman of color; as well as multiple other gay characters of different ethnicities. The homosexual, disabled, and racial representation rendered by Special serves to normalize the existence of individuals that fall into any of these categories. It’s essential for audiences to understand that homosexuality isn’t merely something reserved for able-bodied, conventionally attractive white men – that disabled queer people exist, and are perfectly valid and beautiful.
I was also left awestruck by the “human” touches smeared
across the series.
Being gay and disabled, for instance, doesn’t absolve Ryan of being selfish and insensitive. Being a plus-sized woman of colour doesn’t compensate for Kim’s lack of depth of personality. It’s a reminder to audiences that being a part of a minority community doesn’t automatically compensate for all our flaws or character discrepancies. The last scene of episode 8, in particular, reveals an argument between Ryan and Karen, as she accuses him of negligence towards her in spite of all the sacrifices she made to ensure his well-being. Breaking away from the maternal archetype, Karen angrily exclaims that she blames her son for her miserable, lack-lustre adult life. The honesty of this scene is refreshing, as you watch a beautiful relationship between a mother and a son crumble. A mother who detached herself from maternal responsibility, and a son who was too self-absorbed to be there for his self-sacrificing mother on her birthday. Unlike most black-and-white media where there’s a sharp juxtaposition between the Flawless Protagonist and the Evil Person Who Hurt Them – this series is tinged with shades of grey. With no clear sense of right or wrong; Special ends the series on a melancholic note, with two central characters detaching from each other for reasons that we cannot pinpoint due to the ambivalence of their circumstances.
With that being said, is Special perfect? Absolutely not.
At several points throughout the series, I felt a tad bit frustrated by the show’s lack of depth. It felt like what could’ve been a rich narrative was stuffed into eight 15-minute episodes that superficially outlined an issue, but didn’t bother expanding on any of the subjects. In addition, certain characters, for instance, Ryan’s boss, Olivia (played by Marla Mindelle) , who tapped into the Cruel Boss stereotype – felt overplayed and exaggerated to the point where the hilarity and entertainment value of her character faded, and was replaced by an annoying urge to reach across the screen and smack her face. The comedic exaggeration of characters seemed forced, and often compromised on the impact of the content; which left a bitter taste in my mouth as I struggled to keep up with storylines that were tainted by cliché humour that went out of fashion in 2011.
Moreover, certain dialogues and character storylines felt forced, as if they were specifically crafted to explain away loopholes in the plot. In addition, I feel like I didn’t really gain an emotional perspective of Ryan’s sexuality, in terms of how he feels about it and how comfortable he is within his sexuality. Perhaps, a deeper entanglement or even a conflict between the two major aspects of his identity would’ve been interesting to witness.
Overall, I was satisfied, intrigued, and entertained. But only just enough.
Final rating: 7/10
Watch Special on Netflix