The best and worst thing about Netflix's new comedy series Special is that it's short. At just eight 15-minute episodes, it feels more like a web series than a TV show (which it kind of is, if you want to be pedantic about what Netflix is). And content-wise, it feels like a web series, too, in its low-stakes amateurishness. If it were something you stumbled across on YouTube, it would be impressive. As a TV series produced by two of the largest entertainment companies in the world (Netflix and Warner Bros., through its Stage 13 digital content brand), it falls short, like they didn't invest fully. Netflix's flimsy development process failed this show.
Special is executive-produced, entirely written by, and stars creator Ryan O'Connell, and is based on his memoir I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves. O'Connell is gay and has mild cerebral palsy, and the show is about the character Ryan figuring out who he is in every dimension of his identity: as a gay man, as a disabled person, as a writer, as a son, as a friend. In the pilot, he gets hit by a car — which really happened to O'Connell — and then starts an internship at EggWoke, an exploitative personal essay factory based on the website Thought Catalog, where O'Connell started his writing career (and where I contributed a few pieces back before I got paid to write, the personal essay market collapsed, and Thought Catalog pivoted to astrology). Rather than tell the truth about his disability, Ryan lies and says his physical symptoms are due to his injury, which O'Connell also actually did. His new identity and new job free him up to make new friends, explore his sexuality, and try being independent from his devoted mother, Karen (Breaking Bad's Jessica Hecht).
The series gets better as it goes on, but the first two episodes are very bad. O'Connell is not an actor, and his stilted delivery calls attention to the unfunny writing. When reflecting on what his legacy would have been if the car had killed him, he says, "My obituary would have been Bleak Lively." The dialogue is littered with faux-clever lines like that. The only joke in the entire season that elicited a chuckle from me is when Ryan's friend Kim (Punam Patel) says of Ryan's mom, "You said she was like Brie Larson in Room but by choice." The frank sexual content and freewheeling f-bombs make it hard TV-MA, but it lacks the spiky wit of the HBO shows it aspires to be like, with the exception of that one Dunhamian line. Special's bright colors, uplifting "be yourself" message, and slow-pitched jokes make it feel like a show for young teenagers, which maybe it is. Don't watch it as a family, though.
By the third episode, the world of the show gets a little bigger as Karen starts dating a neighbor (Better Call Saul's Patrick Fabian) and we get to know Kim better, and by the last two episodes of the season it almost gets good. O'Connell's acting steadily improves throughout the season, and the last few episodes dive deeper into Ryan and Karen's codependent relationship and makes them into more complex characters. "Are there layers of f---ed-up-ness inside of me that I don't know exist?" he asks her, which made me wish we had seen more of those layers earlier in the season.
O'Connell can only be blamed for some of the show's problems. It's not like Hollywood provided him with a plethora of trained actors in their early 20s with CP to audition for the lead role (there's a solid, very graphic joke about Breaking Bad's RJ Mitte at one point, which is basically an acknowledgement of the fact that he's the only other recognizable actor with CP). And in the desperate Peak TV-fueled race to find creators with unique perspectives, sometimes those creators are not nurtured the way they should be. They get handed the keys before they're ready to drive. When then-inexperienced Lena Dunham sold Girls to HBO, she was paired with experienced showrunner Jenni Konner, mentored by superproducer Judd Apatow, and went through HBO's famously rigorous development process. O'Connell, on the other hand, was writing Special by himself on weekends while working as a mid-level writer on Will & Grace.
If Netflix or Warner Bros. or whoever want to be known as companies that give unheard voices the opportunity to tell their stories, they should give the people with those voices the resources to try to make a good show. O'Connell told Vulture he didn't originally intend to star in the show, there just wasn't room in the budget to hire a lead actor. It's not an equal opportunity if the creator is only given half a show. Slapping the "Netflix Original" label on a glorified YouTube series like Special feels like an attempted shortcut to wokeness. There's no guarantee Special would have been good at a half-hour. But it should have been given an honest shot to fail.
On the other hand, as attention spans continue to erode, there's probably a market for 15-minute series on Netflix, and the company is experimenting with the abbreviated format. Later this month Netflix will release Bonding — a sort of New York sibling to Special — which is set in Los Angeles. They're both about young people exploring their sexuality. If you're only going to watch one, watch Bonding. That one will give a better sense of the kind of world that can be built in 15-minute increments. Or watch SundanceTV's State of the Union, a shortform series that launches in May and has name-brand talent in front of and behind the camera (Chris O'Dowd, Rosamund Pike, Stephen Frears, and Nick Hornby). Shortform TV will only become more viable as overwhelmed audiences grow less inclined to commit to long shows. But in order for it to grow from a lesser form into one that's taken seriously, the 15-minute shows have to be as well-made as half-hour ones. Special is not, and that's a missed opportunity.
Hopefully Special gets a second season with a bigger budget, a writing staff, and more time to plan. The way Season 1 improves as it goes along shows Special still has a lot of potential. O'Connell knows what he's trying to do, he just needs the support to get there.
Special premieres Friday, April 12 on Netflix.