Do you ever wake up in the morning and just lie there in that liminal space between dreaming and reality? If not, take a moment to try it, because that same feeling is where you’ll find the second season of writer Ryan O’Connell’s Netflix series Special.
Set two months after the season one finale, Special continues to navigate the intersectionality of queerness and disability. This series is as entertaining as it is educational, having been exceptionally crafted by O’Connell. Having firmly established the central characters of Ryan (O’Connell), mum Karen (Jessica Hecht), and friend Kim (Punam Patel), the second season confirms Special as a true ensemble show; we are drawn into each character’s arc, watching their episodic evolution. (Special drinking game: drink every time someone says ‘journey’.) And with this season being the last, the stakes are high for the characters to find their deserving end.
Being Queer & Disabled – Ryan’s Story
While the first season explored Ryan’s acceptance of his disability, the second series pushes this further as we see Ryan actively engaging with his disabled identity. Towards the end of the series, he joins a disabled group called ‘The Crips’. Through interactions with his mum, we learn that this is the first time Ryan has entered a disabled space and truly interacted with disabled people. He is subsumed into the group, having experienced many of the same stories and difficulties. Importantly, this is not played as a gushing overly-sentimental ‘I’ve found my people’ moment, nor does it become a quick fix for Ryan’s internalised ableism. Instead, we see this moment as a complicated but positive attempt for Ryan to better understand his disabled self, finding a space for himself in a world uncomfortable with his existence. As ‘Crip Prom’ approaches, Ryan is adamant that the prom night is not about ‘reliving but reclaiming’: reclaiming space, time, and identity.
More complex are the arcs that centre on the relationship between queerness and disability. Ryan’s triste with Marc (Jeremy Glazer) takes an unexpected turn with Marc fetishizing Ryan’s disability. Those scenes, which include Marc saying how he thought it was ‘sexy that [Ryan] used to wear leg braces’ and the succeeding scenes where Ryan tries to wash himself clean of the experience in the bath, are deeply uncomfortable to watch. It is a negative comment about the disabled body, masquerading as a positive one, that might pass able-bodied people by, but O’Connell bares the brutal problematic nature of it. This is where the power of the series is really felt: its ability to cast these long shadows of issues that demand airtime and placing them among the bright gaiety of its pithy millennial dialogue.
Stellar Supporting Cast
As creator, writer and star, for the most part the spotlight is on O’Connell, but his neighbouring stars are equally deserving of praise. While Special’s tone and references make it seem it for a millennial audience, Jessica Hecht as mum Karen sublimely embodies the loving but fraught constant carer. Through her relationship with her own mother as well as with Ryan, we see the negotiation between Karen’s sense of self and the sacrifices she makes to its detriment. ‘I’m trapped here,’ she says to Ryan towards the end of the series, not looking for permission but simple understanding – now that her mother has passed away and Ryan is self-sufficient, it’s time for Karen to discover herself and her voice.
No part of Hecht’s being is left untapped to convey the weight and release of her burdens: her voice becomes figuratively and literally louder, her clothes become brighter, lighter, and looser; you can feel yourself almost mimicking her as the character seems to unclench and untwist. No longer duty-bound to be second best in her own life, Karen searches for an equal, someone she doesn’t have to look after. Yes, she looks for it strange places – including Kim, an old child-like friend, and her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend- but the chemistry Hecht has with any actor you put her beside is palpable, with each relationship pulling her further out of her mire of burdens.
Whether a millennial who sees their parents or the parent who sees themself in Hecht, there is great dramatic catharsis to watch her drive off into the sunset, into her new life. As Hecht smiles, you can’t help grin: there is no hiding anymore.
The responsible writer will ensure the actors have a share of the funniest lines, yet it is Punam Patel’s delivery that outshines them all; her acerbic irreverence, her innate sass that is translated into every line. But even her masterful humour cannot dissemble the way she handles the more serious aspects of Kim’s storylines. She laughs off breaking up with Harrison, citing uncouth hookup etiquette. The true conflict is their clashing wealth: her wealth is a dream of agency, darkened by debt, while his is a reality. Patel’s whole demeanour shifts from comedic to heartfelt – are we crying with laughter or with pain? – before settling somewhere between the two. Her melodramatic eating is something we all recognise, the drama, the comedy, a response to her mother’s fat-shaming. Our tears are mingled with hers, as she attempts to draw herself out of debt and an unsatisfying job.
While Patel might be memorable for her sharp funny lines on relationships and feminism, it is impossible to forget her mastery of pain and trauma.
The stories that Special tells and the themes we can pick out like literature students are finally seeing the light of day. Our natural urge might be to cringe, shy away or blush, choosing to focus on the snappy dialogue; but O’Connell holds a mirror up to reality, pushing us to look past our own reflection and see the people we share this world with – a challenging world for queer and disabled people. O’Connell refuses to exclude anyone for the show’s didactic nature, the audience learning alongside the characters, there being no room for judgment or condescension.
The second season of Special is a well-constructed monument with O’Connell sitting as an icon at the summit – protagonist and architect – buttressed by a winning cast and scaffolded by the evocative writing. And what fable isn’t made richer with a few laughs?
Words by James Reynolds
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