The Twentysomething Body-and-Soul-Searching of Netflix’s “Special” and Hulu’s “Shrill”
“Special,” a Netflix comedy starring Ryan O’Connell, depicts the coming of age of a man living with mild cerebral palsy and moderate self-loathing, and it captures the distinctive charms of a highly charismatic gay man dwelling within the personality of a shy and virginal boy. The title of the show is a kind of triple entendre: “Special,” heavy with uplift and crowded with important messages, owes a debt to the after-school special, with all the treacle that implies. But if you stick it out through the end, eight episodes in all—easily done, on account of their affable tone and agreeably modest fifteen-minute running time—you will encounter some savory self-knowledge to cut the sweet cheer.
In adapting his 2015 memoir, “I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves,” O’Connell has renamed himself Ryan Kayes. Ryan lives with his overprotective mother (Jessica Hecht). “I’m twenty-eight years old and I haven’t done a goddam thing,” he says. Shortly, he is doing things, some of them damnable, as an intern at Eggwoke, an online magazine. His boss, Olivia, is played by Marla Mindelle, in a performance that dragon-breathes fresh life into a caricature of an infernal editrix. Early on, Olivia details the site’s revamped mission: “We’ve started publishing confessional essays, like ‘Fifty Ways to Hate Myself’ or ‘Why Do I Keep Finding Things Inside My Vagina’.” Though this line—satirical only in tone, reportorial in its content—is slightly behind the curve in its evaluation of online discourse, it is still speaks to general trends in self-monetization.
For his first trick as an Internet essayist, Ryan inflates an anecdote about a very minor injury in a car accident into a tale of trauma. It’s a viral hit and, more importantly, a cover story for his limp, enabling him to keep his condition secret even from his only work friend, Kim (Punam Patel), a South-Asian-American woman whose professional niche is to discuss her life as a “curvy girl” and whose emotional role is to support Ryan on his journey from mama’s boy to independent man. He makes a good start by getting his own apartment in Episode 3. He hires someone to assemble a table for him, which we might attribute to his disability, but, by the time he calls his mother to plunge a clogged toilet, his C.P. starts to seem like a ready-made metaphor for the generational helplessness that millennials describe in online essays of the type that Ryan may one day graduate to writing.
I’m struck by the degree to which “Special” echoes “Shrill,” on Hulu, in its particular concerns and general tone as a semi-autobiographical comedy combining social satire and twentysomething self-searching. Both warmly profile fledgling journalists whose maturation depends on reconciling their feelings about their physical differences with the rest of their selves. (“Shrill” stars Aidy Bryant as Annie, the alter ego of the writer Lindy West, upon whose book the series is loosely based.) Both heroes slash through the jungles of the Internet with their senses of humor—honed by lives of rejection—as their only machete. Both have been raised by mothers whose tendencies to smother express their own needs for guidance, and both are employed by editors hostile to their existences as anything other than click baiters.
The centerpiece of “Shrill” ’s first season is a sequence in its fourth episode: Annie arrives at a fat-acceptance pool party to write about liberation and leaves having achieved it. “Special,” too, has a pool party—a shindig in Olivia’s backyard. After a slo-mo Speedo montage reflecting his awe and fear among the pretty people, Ryan consents to be coaxed into his trunks and dip a toe into romance. These scenes of piscine self-revelation combine the vulnerability of a striptease with the power of baptism. They plunge into feelings of insecurity in an of-the-moment way. Encouraging Ryan into his swim trunks, the curve-celebrating Kim says, “I need to be seen.” Receiving her encouragement, he heads to the pool to work it and, thus, to claim his place in the attention economy.