Why be normal when you can be … Special (season 2 review)

(image courtesy IMDb (c) Netflix)

Life is full of choices about all manner of things but one fairly fundamental one, that we often make a decision without any conscious thought, is whether we are going to play it safe or follow our heart.

It might seem like something so important that you’d sit down, strategise, commission focus groups, reports, memos and a gathering of your nearest and dearest to all weigh in (actually don’t do that; no one needs that kinds of familial or friendship angst) but let’s face it, most of us just put one foot in front of the other, and see where life takes us, making up sh*t as we go along.

That’s not necessarily a failing on our part as the second and final season of Special, by writer and lead actor Ryan O’Connell – the series is based on his memoir I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves (2015) – makes all too clear with a mix of sparkling humour, sober reflection and confronting home truths.

The fact of the matter is life has a fairly unstoppable momentum to it and while it would be nice to step aside and try to figure out the answers to some fairly big questions without the distractions and noise of the everyday, the reality is most, if not all of us, have to hang on for dear life and hope for the best.

In other words, life is usually lived on the go and we just have to hope we get it right more than we get it wrong.

One of the appealing aspects of Special, which focuses more acutely in its second season than it did in its first on what it is like to be queer and disabled (Ryan has cerebral palsy), is that it’s perfectly okay about the fact that we will make mistakes.

Big mistakes, as it turns out, but while they may be painful in the immediate, they usually don’t prove fatal.

Thus the second season is full of relationship dilemmas, change of life conundrums, upsetting of the status quo and a distinct sense that no one will really knows what they want until they’ve come across and rejected the stuff they most certainly do not want.

Ryan Hayes, the protagonist of the show played by O’Connell is the perfect embodiment of this.

Throughout the eight, roughly half-hour episodes of the second season, Ryan ends up dating three major guys, one of whom happens to have a major fetish for disabled guys which understandably doesn’t go down well with Ryan who feels less of a human being than an object with this person (Marc Miller played by Jeremy Glazer) while another, Tanner (Max Jenkins), comes with a whole lot of relationship complicating baggage in the form of older boyfriend with whom he is in a semi-open relationship.

While the path to true love with either of these men is problematic at best, one for a far longer than the other, Special never acts as if Ryan has failed in some way.

Similarly when sparks begin to fly between Ryan and neurodiverse Henry (Buck Andrews) and Ryan has to decide if their relationship will be best friends or more, his final decision is simply presented as one that is natural and not a failure to commit or follow through.

Similarly when it comes to his career, where Ryan is constantly fighting back against being the tokenistic disabled person whose lived experience is only really good for clicks and viral possibilities, he makes some hard decisions on what he wants from his career that don’t come with pre-planning and actually cause a scene in the middle of his very idiosyncratic boss Olivia’s (Marla Mindelle) suitably strange and food-less wedding.

Special deals with all of these changes and the decisions good and bad leading up to them, as if they are performing normal part of a fallible but well-lived life.

No one’s life is perfect and even golden children like Ryan’s vivaciously funny and heartfelt bestie Kimberly (Punam Patel), who ends up with lots of credit card debt, a less than satisfying career and happily, an unexpected love interest from a lifelong source, don’t always get it right.

And when you don’t line up all your ducks up perfectly, you learn from it which is what Ryan and Kim both do, with some angst or pain but without any sense that they are metaphorically mortally wounded.

In that respect, Special is wonderfully grounded, taking the time particularly to address what life is like when you are disabled, and that far from being the kind of inspiration porn that rears its poorly-informed head more than once through the season, you have the same challenges and pressures as anyone else.

They certainly take different forms and require a lot more effort in certain respects, and O’Connell is not afraid to take these on whether it’s educating people like Tanner on how they should approach someone with a disability (not as a number or an icon but as a person) or simply how someone with say cerebral palsy tackles ordinary things like putting on a shirt or sweeping up broken glass.

Special does a great job of educating its audience on what it is like to be disabled without once being preachy or polemic, choosing instead to let Ryan’s story educate organically and through the lens of a life that, some obvious aspects notwithstanding, comes with the same joys and challenges as anyone else’s.

The season also does a beautiful job of addressing what life can be like when all of the expectations and obligations of the past fall away and you can suddenly take some time to explore what it is you want.

Ryan’s mum Karen (Jessica Hecht) is the exemplar in this regard, reaching a point where her son is independent, other life pressures have resolved themselves and she can suddenly assess a slew of wondrously hopeful possibilities from the joyful position of someone able to pursue them if she so chooses.

Watching her come alive, and how honest she and her son are with each other, is one of the great many delights of this beautifully-written, real but funny and upliftingly good show, the absence of which going forward will be keenly felt, not simply because it shines a light on what it is really like to be queer and disabled but because it’s liberatingly honest about life, and groundedly freeing and very funny, sanely looking at life as something that sometimes good, sometimes bad, but eminently survivable and full of opportunities that might take you very good places indeed, even if you do slip up along the way.

Posted In TV

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