Ryan O’Connell is accomplishing so many milestones with his Netflix series Special that it’s easy to miss the major milestone his two-season series marks: A series centered on a gay man that is nonchalant about his sexuality.
That tends to get downplayed because Special is also a series in which the main character’s cerebral palsy is at the forefront without defining him. In many ways, it’s reassuring to contemplate how little ink is spilled on what should be by now the norm; on the other, Special is most radical in that it remains the outlier.
The second season only fulfills all the promise of its first, which consisted of eight 15-minute-long episodes. During Season 1, we were introduced to Ryan (played by series creator O’Connell), his close relationship with his mother (the irreplaceable Jessica Hecht), his job writing for blog EggWoke, and his new bestie Kim (future giant star Punam Patel). Along the way, Special elegantly and succinctly tipped over a lot of sacred cows, from Ryan preferring to tell people he was hit by a car than that he has cerebral palsy (less explaining) to losing his virginity to a sex worker to, gasp, making him kinda an asshole.
Season 2’s episodes are twice as long, twice as good, and twice as moving.
Using the extra time wisely, O’Connell and the writers choose to flesh out his world by giving Hecht and Patel fully realized lives away from Ryan. Hecht’s arc is a particularly stunning one, as she struggles to find who she is when she’s not serving as a caretaker for her son or her mother.
But this is O’Connell’s show all the way, and the best and most cringe moments come courtesy of his relationship with Tanner (Max Perkins, a welcome addition to the cast). Their on again, off again romance, complicated by Tanner’s open relationship, Ryan’s burgeoning independence, and the clash of Tanner’s ignorance and Ryan’s exhaustion at explaining his CP. I can’t recall another LGBTQ+ series that so adroitly navigates the real-life waxing and waning of a gay relationship, from the sizzle of meeting at a bar to the fizzle that ends it all. Not to mention the dickish behavior on both sides, including the most nonchalant discussions of anal sex I have ever seen in American television. (Yes, I watched Looking.)
If we want to see more queer stories that don’t revolve around trauma or disease (sorry Halston!), we need to support shows like Special. That it’s one of the best series of 2021 just makes that an easier choice.