The protagonist of “Special” would probably hate how people are describing the (funny! smart!) TV show about his life as being about “a gay, disabled man.” In fact, when Ryan (creator Ryan O’Connell) gets hit by a car shortly before starting a new job in the pilot, and his new co-workers assume that the physical embodiment of his cerebral palsy is due to the accident, he’s downright thrilled. To him, this misunderstanding isn’t a mistake that needs a correcting so much as an incredible opportunity to start their impression of him from scratch. After a lifetime of condescension, he’s suddenly not “the guy with cerebral palsy” they need to pity, but just a fellow human being who got unlucky.
Of course, this being a sitcom, maintaining this lie isn’t nearly as simple as Ryan hoped. But throughout all the comic misunderstandings, “Special” keeps its feet firmly on the ground, no doubt thanks to the fact that much of it is based directly on O’Connell’s own life as — and here I go doing exactly what I called out a paragraph ago — a man who happens to be disabled and gay in a world that often disdains both. (O’Connell really was hit by a car; his accident was even more physically devastating than the one his facsimile suffers, a fact he also leaned into when people mistook his cerebral palsy as injuries as Ryan’s coworkers do on “Special.”)
“Special” unfolds in eight abbreviated episodes running under 15 minutes each, all directed by Anna Dokoza and written by O’Connell himself (whose resume also includes “Awkward” and “Will & Grace”). That truncated episode length, combined with Ryan’s internship at a soulless confessional blog called “eggwoke,” give the show something of a throwback webseries feel that might have felt more at home in 2015 than 2019, which makes sense given its origin story. Even with Jim Parsons on board as an executive producer, “Special” was shopped around for several years before a network would fully commit to it, and “eggwoke” is based on O’Connell’s experience at Thought Catalog back when Thought Catalog was a viral force. (This latter incongruity reminds me of “Shrill,” Hulu’s comedy based on Lindy West’s memoir, which also suffers from rooting its character’s journey in a similarly outdated media landscape.)
But in the ways that truly count, “Special” tackles timeless issues with equal parts compassion and wit.
There’s Ryan’s longing for people to take him seriously, to write pieces that will connect with people, and for cute guys to find him hot when everyone else seems to have 12 more abs than he ever could (Los Angeles in this case, but the insecurity is truly a universal one). In one standout episode, Ryan decides to hire a sex worker so he can lose his virginity without fear or embarrassment — and he does, in a patient sequence that still makes room for jokes and smiles.
It’s also impressive that “Special” makes room to flesh out a couple of the important women in his life, like his new coworker and best friend, Kim (Punam Patel), and his worried mother, Karen (the perpetually underrated Jessica Hecht). The only person onscreen who’s a true stereotype is his narcissistic nightmare boss Olivia (Marla Mindelle), who clearly took all the wrong lessons from “The Devil Wears Prada.”
As the main character of his own series, Ryan is revolutionary, yes. He’s also quick and snarky, deeply insecure and sometimes more selfish than he’s willing to admit. He makes mistakes and pays for them, undergoing a hell of a lot of change in the short time “Special” gets to show it. If the series were given more time to tell his story, it would be fascinating and even more satisfying to see where O’Connell might take it.