Netflix breaks barriers with ‘Special’

Sunday, April 14, 2019 - 3:40pm

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Adapted from the memoir “I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves” by Ryan O’Connell, “Special” tells his semi-autobiographical tale of life as a gay man with cerebral palsy who is learning how to live on his own. “Special,” produced by Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”), distinguishes itself from other shows about disabled people right off the bat, avoiding common tropes of self-pity and the erasure of romantic plotlines. It also is one of the few shows featuring a disabled actor actually playing a disabled character.

Like all new TV shows, it takes a few episodes for the show to find its stride. The dialogue is initially heavy with unintentional awkward silence in conversations and a forced effort to be funny, but gradually, the dialogue begins to sound more realistic and confident in its delivery. It’s easy to binge, but it’s a shame that the show ends right when it begins to self-actualize.

There are several memorable scenes that don’t resemble anything that’s ever been seen on television. One of the most daring scenes is when Olivia (Marla Mindelle, “Kevin Hart’s Guide to Black History”), Ryan’s boss, sets him up with her cousin after hearing that he was looking for a boyfriend. Ryan agrees but is surprised when he realizes that his date is deaf. He says he can “do better than a deaf guy,” and Olivia immediately calls him out for his internalized ableism — the idea that societal prejudices against the disabled cause disabled people to loathe themselves and others who fall under the same category. On TV, the most common narrative arc for disabled people is their constant internal conflict and attempt to fit into society. While Ryan experiences this as well, the show delves deeper into the complexities of how being disabled doesn’t give you a free pass to treat other humans as lesser.

It also tackles disability from a mother’s perspective. In media about disability, mothers are often portrayed as strong, impenetrable forces that live solely to support their kids. Although some moms embody this personality, “Special” recognizes the struggles many parents face with empty nest syndrome. Ryan’s mom, Karen (Jessica Hecht, “Quantico”), dutifully represents a mother who has spent her whole life acting as an on-call nurse for both her son and her own mother, who has dementia. When Ryan leaves the house, she wrestles with trying to start up her own life again whilst constantly worrying about her son’s well-being. Parents will be able to resonate with her narrative, which the show thankfully never neglects throughout the season.

Despite the show’s rough start, “Special” flourishes nicely into a unique and rarely-seen representation of the disabled and how their struggles aren’t so different from able-bodied people. As aforementioned, “Special” ended right at what seemed like the climax of the show, giving Netflix even more incentive for renewal if the impressively fresh plot wasn’t enough. Seeing as true stories like these hardly ever gain attention on mainstream television, there are so many layers and dimensions of disability the show can bring to the surface on a platform like Netflix.