Based on his sharp memoir-manifesto “I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves,” out comedian Ryan O’Connell has fashioned a new Netflix series based on his life as a gay man with cerebral palsy.
In “Special,” O’Connell stars as Ryan Keyes, a shy and withdrawn man who has a codependent relationship with his mother. Deft and poignant, the series depicts cerebral palsy truthfully and without exploitation.
O’Connell, along with That’s Wonderful Productions, has created a show worth crowing about. With eight 15-minute episodes, “Special” is relatable to nearly any viewer as, above all, it tackles the characters’ challenges as they seek emotional and physical independence.
Everyone comes with secrets. Everyone suffers from loneliness. Everyone embraces loss and has one that got away. Everyone sacrifices parts of themselves that they can never get back. Everyone likes sex.
While Keyes’ gay identity is not the only thread “Special” examines, it is a massive one. From its warmly humorous first-time anal-sex scene to its winking, poolside muscle-boy hang and Grindr speak, the program doesn’t shy away from an honest and unbridled conversation around gayness.
O’Connell portrays Keyes as a shy, introverted millennial with nerdish style who is looking to find his own footing within the social/pop-cultural firmament — gay and straight. His televised persona is that of a Los Angeles intern working at a once-bitchy website that has turned inward after realizing its most popular content was rooted in personal strife and self-revelation.
The overly precious Twitter-speak Keyes uses in the first several episodes can be irritating but, if you stick around, “Special” grows out of that tactic and creates a signature, fast-paced language and tone that are as recognizable as David Mamet or Rachel Bloom.
Daily dramas are readily available in the first truly funny season of “Special.” A frustratingly codependent relationship with Keyes’ nervous mother (Jessica Hecht), whom he needs slightly less than she needs him, and her foray into dating for the first time in decades provide more than enough comical fodder.
Punam Patel, Keyes’ overly confident coworker/new best friend, and his controlling and obsessive boss (Marla Mindelle) are two women who demand laughter. All of this — and there’s still room for the cute, unattainable boy (Augustus Prew) who provides a sort-of tropic humor that carries the narrative.
Each of these oversized characters and their tales eventually interact, which is what makes “Special” so full-blooded and rich. It’s worth 15 minutes and then some to hear a mother explain away the obsession she has with her son to a new beau who has long since lost interest, or to behold O’Connell’s skill in the realm of physical comedy.
His awkwardness, and the strides he takes when conquering the downslides and sideways spills of cerebral palsy, make this show sharp and socially cutting without sanctimony. It’s entertaining and engaging when Keyes lands his first real job, begins his first true adventures in dating and leaves home — and his helicopter mom — for the first time.