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TV Critic’s Corner

Likable vibe, cheeky humor stand out on ‘Special’

Ryan O’Connell, a millennial gay man with cerebral palsy, is creator and star of “Special.”
Ryan O’Connell, a millennial gay man with cerebral palsy, is creator and star of “Special.”Tracy Nguyen/The New York Times

Go back a few years, and there was a magical moment in the tectonically shifting TV landscape that felt a lot like a sweet spot.

The amorphous narrative entities known then as “Web series” were finding their tiny little ways to the mainstream like hatchling turtles scuttling toward the sea. Free from the constraints of corporate financing and overbearing notes from overlords, these fresh, lithe, digestible, independent projects helped introduce a range of characters, bodies, types, and stories that scarcely ever made it to primetime, and helped set the tone and prime the TV landscape for the streaming revolution. 

With their tight focus, tighter budgets, and short runtimes (which helped bestow a sense of urgency), Web series didn’t just announce the new vanguard of streaming video, they offered a model for short-form series that felt like a natural fit with our short attention spans.

This is where “Special” comes in. The new Netflix series comes from writer, actor, YouTuber, and ubiquitous social media presence Ryan O’Connell, whose popular blogs and videos candidly document his triumphs and travails as a millennial gay man with cerebral palsy.


The premiere episode (“Cerebral LOLzy”) opens with O’Connell falling flat on his face, and let’s just say it sets the tone.

So, too, does the familiar coming-of-middle-age millennial milieu, which finds O’Connell toiling in an unpaid internship for an Internet “LOLzy satire” mill, basking in anguish over his love life, and otherwise trying to find himself (in part by exploiting himself for clicks).

The show plays like a loose adaptation of his 2015 memoir, “I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves,” but it also feels like a finely-tuned, precision-crafted Web series, with potent little zingers stitched into every exchange — along with the occasional sledgehammer (e.g. “It’s hard out here for a gimp,” he laments to his PT guy.)

And while O’Connell’s story centers on his disability, his performance foregrounds his likable vibe, endearingly cheeky humor, and just enough scream-at-the-screen cluelessness. With its first eight episodes clocking in at just over two hours total, “Special” is a brief affair that feels long overdue. After all, committed long-term relationships with TV shows are all well and good, but as Ryan discovers, sometimes a quick fling can make the biggest impact. 


Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MBrodeur.