Brevity is both the soul of wit and the soul of Netflix’s new comedy Special. Spend enough time watching shows that feel endless because their creators are abusing the lack of limitations in the streaming space and it’s impossible not to appreciate Ryan O’Connell for making the eight episodes of his autobiographical series run between 11 and 17 minutes.
Special is still experimenting with its tone and format, but it’s doing so with a solid sense of its voice and themes, and with welcome restraint. O’Connell, who has written on Awkward and Daytime Divas, adapted it from his memoir and plays a variation of himself, in this case an aspiring writer still living with his co-dependent mother (Jessica Hecht) and beginning a job as an unpaid intern at a blog called Eggwoke. Ryan is gay, but has never been in a real relationship, and he has cerebral palsy, but doesn’t want to be known exclusively as the guy with CP. So he attributes his various symptoms to a recent car accident and tries to carve out a new niche among his co-workers, including tyrannical editor Olivia (Marla Mindelle) and popular writer Kim (Punam Patel), who could be Ryan’s first real friend. He also begins a flirtation with Kim’s friend Carey (Augustus Prew).
It’s easy to recognize what Netflix and an established team of producers led by Jim Parsons saw in O’Connell. TV doesn’t have a surplus of characters with CP — Olivia, in a typically filter-free line, announces that she used to masturbate to R.J. Mitte from Breaking Bad — let alone comedies about gay guys with CP. O’Connell is also a likable performer with a self-effacing sense of humor that helps the character transition from broad gags and pratfalls to shockingly frank and emotionally exposed moments like a graphic sexual encounter with a sex worker. I’d call that scene “brave” or “special,” if that weren’t exactly the opposite of O’Connell’s point.
The show is candid about the realities of Ryan’s “mild case” of CP — “I’m not able-bodied enough to be hanging in the mainstream world, but I’m not disabled enough to be hanging with the cool PT crowd,” he laments to his trainer — and also clever enough to use Kim and his mother’s stories to create a well-rounded portrait of people learning to be honest about their identities, about their own specialness. Patel and especially Hecht, who shares some good scenes with Patrick Fabian as a potential love interest, are more seasoned performers than O’Connell, and he benefits from leaning on their experience.
While O’Connell’s story is unique to television, the way he and series director Anna Dokoza (Lady Dynamite) have chosen to tell that story is somewhat less so, reflecting the recent trend in single-camera, comic-centric shows, the extension of the model Louis C.K. built up on Louie. It’s hard not to compare Special to a pair of more accomplished Hulu comedies: Ramy Youssef’s Ramy, featuring a character with muscular dystrophy in a co-dependent relationship with his mother, and Lindy West’s Shrill. I assume the Special team had at least a minor wave of insecurity when Shrill came out, with its professional backdrop of a confessional-driven website and a justifiably praised episode using a pool party as a vehicle for a celebration of body positivity, since Special has an eerily similar scene that’s good, but less effective.
Based on Ryan’s experiences in the series, I’m sure O’Connell wouldn’t want me to condescendingly overpraise Special. The positive side of the show’s episodic economy is that no scene or episode feels padded. The negative is that Special can feel rushed when it comes to character building and aesthetics. O’Connell’s tendency is to embrace the easy quip or pun or wisecrack, the sort of problem that could be ameliorated by a writers room or just more preproduction development time.
The running times actually make Special resemble a run of incubator webisodes, a showcase for what makes O’Connell interesting and funny. Netflix is a pretty massive platform for that sort of incubator, but that’s exactly the kind of thing a service with apparently unlimited resources should try to do. The show is a work in progress about a character who’s a work in progress and, in this quickly digestible form, it is set up to potentially continue to grow into something special — hopefully without losing that under-20-minute charm.
Cast: Ryan O’Connell, Jessica Hecht, Punam Patel, Marla Mindelle, Augustus Prew, Patrick Fabian
Creator: Ryan O’Connell
Director: Anna Dokoza
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)