In the third episode of Netflix’s new comedy Special there is the most accurate, organic and realistic portrayal of gay sex that any TV show has seen for years. In the scene, Ryan, the show’s 28-year-old protagonist, visits a male sex worker in order to lose his virginity. As a man with cerebral palsy, Ryan is finally striking out in a bid to claim some independence from his seemingly overbearing mother, and losing his virginity is at the top his checklist.
The scene is awkward, tender, frank and, actually, quite sexy. Even better, it breaks boundaries without making a big deal out of it, humanising sex workers while showing someone with a disability as a sexual being in the process. But that’s what makes Special so, well, special: its many (and there are many) important and groundbreaking moments are just so normal.
Based on the memoir I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves by Ryan O’Connell, who actually wrote, produced and stars as Ryan in the show, Special is Netflix’s first foray into what could be described as a short-form web series. The first season’s eight episodes sit at just 15 minutes a pop, meaning there’s no time to make a big deal out of the Big Topics being broached in each scene. Instead, these vignettes are just a string of events, some inconsequential and some life altering, that become the narrative makeup of a human life.
We’re introduced to Ryan Kayes, a character loosely based on O’Connell. The pair share similar stories. O’Connell and Kayes both have cerebral palsy (CP), they’re both gay and they both got hit by a car. O’Connell, however, suffered from compartment syndrome—a potentially life-threatening condition—after his accident, while Kayes is left relatively unharmed by his own battle with an automobile. What both did do, though, was tell a big ol’ lie about the impact the car accident had on their lives. Rather than discuss or acknowledge that they have CP, both tell friends and colleagues that the car accident left them disabled. For both O’Connell and the character of Kayes, the “otherness” that having a disability can make you feel meant that creating a fiction was easier than accept their own reality.
“In my eyes, I never related to having cerebral palsy,” O’Connell said in an interview with Vulture recently. “My case was so mild, and I really was just looking for any opportunity to get cerebral palsy off of me. So when the opportunity came to rewrite my identity as an accident victim—which in my eyes was very relatable because getting hit by a car could happen to any of us, whereas [with] cerebral palsy, you’re born with it—I fuckin’ took it.”
This, too, is how Ryan in the show approaches the construction of his new identity. After landing an internship at a content site called “eggwoke” where staff are encouraged to mine personal trauma for clicks, he ends up writing a viral post about the car accident. Freed from the shackles of his CP, he embarks on a number of firsts, including sex, dating, work and getting his own apartment.
However, there are some things that he’s not free from, mainly his intensely codependent relationship with his mother, Karen (played impeccably by Jessica Hecht). While initially Special paints her as entirely wrapped up in her son’s life, as things progress you begin to understand that both her and Ryan have been chipping away at each other in some way or another for 25 years. The pair have inadvertently been holding each other back from any sort of growth. Her own emancipation, particularly in the fifth episode, Vagina Momologues, is equally as important as Ryan’s; here we see someone who had adopted her role as a carer for life experience something outside of that role. When, in the final moments of the episode, Karen fully lets herself go (no spoilers, soz), it’s just as triumphant and meaningful as Ryan’s big moments.
"Special is a show for the other guy, the one who feels invisible on Grindr or ignored at gay bars. It’s a show for the guy who always goes home alone after a night out while his friends have partnered off. But really, its most monumental achievement is that it puts that guy at the heart of the story."
And, thanks to the slim running time of the episodes, these experiences come so thick and fast that by the end of the season Ryan is tumbling (quite literally) over them. Not that the rapidity with which Special touches on things ever feels underdeveloped. Instead, the mundanity of the everyday human experience is dropped side-by-side with significant moments. We see Ryan Googling whether he has “internalised ableism” after a bad date with a deaf man, while he’s Skyping with his mother about picking up her birthday cake. Likewise, while a night playing poker with a group of gay men might seem innocuous, it actually highlights some of the things that able-bodied people take for advantage, like cutting cards or doing up shoelaces.
Special strikes this balance particularly well with how it portrays Ryan as a person with CP who is also gay. It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say that depictions of disabled queer people in mainstream culture are practically non-existent. Even in most IRL queer spaces, those people are almost invisible, whether that’s due to a lack of accessibility, stigmatisation or fear of being judged. Special not only comes from the real, lived in experiences of someone with a disability, but also from someone who is gay and has a disability.
“Disabled people have been so ignored and desexualised, it really, really fucks with you,” O’Connell said to Vulture, noting that while he works out a lot and is proud of his body, it’s more complicated than that. “I also feel like another layer of it is, ‘If I get muscly arms or if you can see my triceps, somehow my cerebral palsy will wash away.’ I’m literally trying to work off my disability or something.”
It makes the aforementioned sex scene, and all the other times in the show where the character of Ryan finds himself desired by men, all the more important. The show, however, doesn’t build up or dramatically heighten these experiences. When Ryan loses his virginity with the sex worker, it’s just as funny, cute and awkward as anyone’s first foray into sexual life. That it’s also an accurate and unflinching portrayal of what it’s like to have gay sex only makes its significance feel more bittersweet. It’s sweet because after being teased with realistic portrayals of queer relationships on screen, film and TV are still hesitant about how they depict gay sex—either they dress it up with porny filters to heighten its eroticism or the camera pans away to, say, a shot of the moon. And it’s bitter because why the fuck has it taken this long not only to see realistic gay sex on screen but to see a disabled gay person have sex on screen?
Refreshingly—and following the example of sitcoms like Schitt’s Creek and The Other Two—Ryan’s queerness is never an issue: this is a world without homophobia where nearly all the men we’re introduced to are gay. The burgeoning relationship between Ryan and the coupled-up Carey (played by British actor Augustus Prew) is quite lovely, even with Ryan’s attempts at self-sabotage and his struggles to take ownership of his disability. Likewise, the dynamic with Ryan and his mother, while deeply unhealthy, allows for some zingers, including Ryan dubbing himself “the bareback contessa”.
Most thrillingly, though, is the depiction of a gay man who exists on the fringes of mainstream depictions of gay life. Shows like Looking and Queer as Folk, while they were integral to pushing boundaries for television, presented a fairly homogenised and conventional picture of gay people. These were attractive (usually white) gay men who went to the gym and who had lots and lots of sex.
Special is a show for the other guy, the one who feels invisible on Grindr or ignored at gay bars. It’s a show for the guy who always goes home alone after a night out while his friends have partnered off. But really, its most monumental achievement is that it puts that guy at the heart of the story. No longer just the foil or the best friend, the invisible guy is finally made visible. And even better, he’s just as fucked up, mean, funny, complicated, sexual, self-absorbed, kind and complex as everyone else. He’s not special; he’s just human.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.