Why Be Normal When We Can Be Special?
The Netflix series “Special” opens with its main character, Ryan, getting hit by a car and thrown into an existential crisis. The accident forces Ryan, a disabled gay man who has multiple insecurities, to evaluate his identity and pushes him to reinvent himself over the course of the first season. It’s a seemingly bleak way to open a sitcom, but the quirky humor and authenticity of the characters quickly come to define this show.
“Special” is a particularly personal story, as it’s based on the memoir of its creator and lead actor, Ryan O’Connell. In his 2015 book, “I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves to Get Through Our Twenties,” O’Connell writes about his life as a gay man with cerebral palsy, and as a millennial trying to navigate the modern world of flashy apps and social anxiety. Though the show still presents fictional events and relationships not found in its source material, O’Connell gives a vulnerable and charming performance as a version of himself.
I watched the series in its entirety toward the end of last year and recently read the book. Particularly with the show, it was refreshing to see media on a popular streaming service tackle issues like internalized ableism, dating and disability, intersectional identities, and inspiration porn. Rarely is this kind of representation ever explored, and if it is, it’s usually without a disabled actor or creator.
During the first season, Ryan starts an internship at a trendy online publication, hoping to get a chance to write some articles for it. When his boss and co-workers notice his clumsiness and physical setbacks, he reveals that he was hit by a car several months prior, and pity toward him follows. However, Ryan does not disclose his CP to them, not even to his close friend Kim (Punam Patel). He instead sees an opportunity to take advantage of the accident and writes a viral blog post about it. He’s confident that keeping the disability component of his identity in the closet is the best thing for him.
The series also heavily revolves around the relationship between Ryan and his overprotective mother, Karen (Jessica Hecht). While O’Connell’s book addresses his relationship with both of his parents and includes some funny anecdotes in earlier chapters, he explores this dynamic much more in the show. Ryan and Karen have an overly codependent relationship, which eventually causes a rift between them and their attempts to live apart from one another.
One of the most poignant messages O’Connell conveys in both the book and the show is how our obsession with projecting the perfect image of ourselves to the world has made us infinitely more lonely. Toward the end of a chapter in the book titled “Best Friends Forever, Best Friends Never,” he writes, “It’s easy to tweet at a person, and it’s easy to ‘like’ their statuses on Facebook, but it’s getting harder and harder to actually show up for someone and actively put effort into building a friendship. I find it hilarious that I’m ‘friends’ with so many people on the Internet when I actually only hang out with five people.”
This is a subject I’ve written about, and I genuinely do believe that social media and the internet can help people, particularly those of us in disability communities, to connect. The keyword there is “can.” It can also cause our anxiety to skyrocket and make us slaves to artificial relationships. O’Connell isn’t afraid to explore this aspect of our culture.
O’Connell’s past struggle with disclosing his disability to others is not something I’ve experienced. My 400-pound wheelchair and robotic arm are a little hard to hide. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to watch and read about how his relationship with his disability evolved over time. Both the book and the show are honest, retrospective looks at how internalized ableism affects everyone, even those of us with disabilities.
We need more shows and books like “Special.” Art that boldly tackles subjects often considered taboo should be treasured. “Normal” is way too boring and outdated. Let’s instead celebrate the unique parts of our identities and realize that just existing as ourselves is something special.
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