If “Special” were any shorter, it could compete as a short-form series at the Emmys. Only two of its eight initial episodes run over 15 minutes (the TV Academy cut-off), and you can absorb the fun first season in less than two hours. A slight runtime is not a slight in quality — far from it. Some of last year’s best shows were short-form, and more freshman series (not just comedies) could benefit from focusing episodes to quarter-hour chunks. Its appealing length is also a sign of much-appreciated self-awareness, as “Special” needs some time to hone its delivery and find more storytelling confidence, but there’s more than enough in Ryan O’Connell’s new series to make it the right kind of notable.
Based on his own memoir, “I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves,” O’Connell plays Ryan Kayes, a gay man with cerebral palsy who’s still living with his mother, Karen (Jessica Hecht). Sheltered by her protective instincts and his own fear of being seen as different, Ryan mostly keeps to himself. He goes to physical therapy and talks to his trainer about guys he likes, but will never talk to; he walks down the street wearing noise-canceling headphones that double as a shield from the world. It’s only when he gets hit by a car and starts thinking about what his life has amounted to thus far that he decides to do more.
Ryan makes these decisions quickly. He gets an internship quickly. He gains friends quickly. In O’Connell’s real life, these events probably happened slower and required more patience. But this is a TV show, and O’Connell recognizes as much. Alongside fellow executive producer Jim Parsons and director Anna Dokoza, “Special” never skimps on entertainment, coaxing you to go along with the ride via a strong ensemble and addictive pacing.
Ryan’s starter gig is at a website that thrives on confessional blogs and personality-driven listicles. He’s asked to mine his own life for connective posts (not unlike Annie Easton’s job in “Shrill”), just like his fast friend and top-ranked co-worker Kim (Punam Patel) does. Their boss, Olivia (Marla Mindelle), sees herself as a fashionable demigod, while her underlings consider her an eccentric, controlling, and slightly clueless supervisor (again, like “Shrill”). Both women throw a delightful curve into the proceedings, bouncing off each other and Ryan to create an enticing energy that’s only bound to grow if Season 2 moves forward.
Courtesy of Netflix
Little hiccups nag the overall production. Certain framings linger too long on a facial gesture or pratfall, overemphasizing and dulling whatever point is being made. Blocking, timing, and transitions could all be touched up to deliver a smoother experience, but watching “Special” lean into the learning curve can be part of its endearing charms. I’m not going to go so far as to say its imperfections are what makes it great — they should and likely will be corrected — but they’re not as big of a drawback to this coming-of-age series as they might be to other stories.
Part of the credit goes to O’Connell himself. A talented physical comedian with good delivery for a nascent actor, he plays Ryan with an apt amount of chagrin (as he tries to expand his comfort zone) and excited bursts of frankness. It helps he has Hecht as a consistent scene partner. The former “Red Oaks” and “Friends” star handles the fast pacing well, exploring many corners of a mother who’s repressed her own wants to help her kid for 20-some years. She can convey a lot in a look or a line reading, and when Karen gets an episode to herself, Hecht delivers.
By the end of the eight episodes, “Special” flashes just enough depth to keep its brief run from being forgotten. Ryan confronts aspects of his own personality that portend deeper changes to come — ones beyond new clothes, a new job, and a new apartment — and the series shows a willingness to embrace the messiness within long-term relationships after they’re nudged in a new direction. There’s plenty to improve upon, but “Special” has the right pieces in place.
“Special” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.
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