The Honest To Blog World Of Special Creator Ryan O’Connell
Courtesy of Netflix
“I didn’t really like being a blogger,” Ryan O’Connell says. After spending his early career writing confessional essays for the Internet, he discovered blogging did not, in so many words, make him feel lit inside. “It felt kind of like a means to an end. My angle was always to be a television writer.”
That doesn’t mean he didn’t put in the time. Powered by being “young, hungry, and having a ton of feelings,” O’Connell wrote — a lot. Enough for at least four memoirs, by his accounting. But, to him, the finish line for this ambition was still television.
On April 12, Netflix released the first season of Special, based off of O’Connell’s 2015 book, I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves. He served as the creator, writer, and eventually the star of the series, which sees a fictionalized Ryan (last name, Hayes) land an internship at a digital content farm called EggWoke that asks him to spill his guts for the entire Internet to devour.
IRL, O’Connell worked at sites like Vice and Thought Catalog before eventually selling his book, and later, optioning it for TV. [Editor’s note: I also worked at Thought Catalog, though not at the same time as O’Connell.] But 2015 was four years ago; in that time, he worked on the Will and Grace reboot, and used weekends to develop Special’s script by himself. (Producers and directors provided feedback and helped shape Special to its final form.) He now calls that process “kind of a weird, isolating experience. … Hopefully, if we get a next season, then we can do a writer’s room and all that stuff,” he adds with a laugh.
Still, that allowed for a certain amount of creative freedom. “I think I was so not convinced that this would ever be made that I wrote the scripts exactly how I wanted to write them,” he says now. “I really, really thought they would never see the light of day. I just knew what story I wanted to tell, and I was like, well, whatever, this won’t get made or if it does it will air at an Arby’s and that will be that. That allowed me to be as honest as I wanted to be without freaking out.”
Special’s first season is told over the course of eight episodes that run for an average of 15 minutes each. We meet Ryan before his internship, when he’s navigating a home life with his helicopter mother and cracking self-deprecating jokes about his Grindr profile while at physical therapy for his cerebral palsy. The show doesn’t shy away from his disability, either; the first scene features Ryan explaining CP to a random kid who has just witnessed him falling on the sidewalk. (O’Connell also has CP, making him one of the few actors whose lived experience as a disabled person actually mirrors that of his characters.)
That Special is a comedy lends itself to one of its overarching themes: Ryan may be grappling with a certain level of internalized ableism, which partly accounts for the number of jokes he makes about his own disability. (The other part is that good, ol’ fashioned personality trait called sarcasm.) And when his new EggWoke coworkers mistake his having been hit by a car as the cause for his disability, he does not correct them for the better part of the entire first season. Though no one with a disability is obligated to share their experiences with anyone, O’Connell chose to frame Ryan’s decision as a lie by omission; the experience was inspired by a similar one he had when he moved to New York as a budding writer.
It was important to O’Connell that all of his characters — from Ryan, to his mother (Jessica Hecht), to his blunt-to-the-point-of-rude boss, Olivia (Marla Mindelle) — be multi-faceted. “That is how I am, and how everyone else is: we can be kind and virtuous, but we can also be selfish and self-serving, and say the wrong thing,” he says. “That’s just called being a human being. So why wouldn’t you paint a disabled person with the same brush? We’re not just here to be uplifting and make you go ‘Aww.’”
O’Connell points to a lack of awareness and a general erasure of people with disabilities as one way our society has failed the nearly 26 percent of American adults who have some form of disability. “If we’re being highlighted, it’s usually because we’re being infantilized or treated with kind gloves,” he says, adding that a constant need to feel like “inspiration porn” can wear away at a person emotionally. “The idea that we always need to be so virtuous and so strong, and we need to be climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro without limbs is really unrealistic and one-dimensional,” he adds. After all, people who don’t have disabilities are rarely that strong and hardly ever that virtuous themselves.
To that end, it was also critical to O’Connell that the on-screen Ryan’s dating life didn’t hold back. “I really wanted to create a gay, disabled character that has sexual desire and wants and needs,” he says. “I feel like when disabled people are portrayed in TV and film, it’s often like they’re Ken or Barbie dolls. And I really wanted to give this character some agency. I wanted him to just be horny. And I really wanted to show gay sex for what it is, and be really honest about that representation.”
This does happen in an episode wherein Ryan has sex for the first time, with a sex worker whom he’s hired. Some viewers have lamented how little time the show spent grappling with Ryan’s emotional arc in relation to that decision, and if the show does get renewed for a second season, O’Connell hopes he’ll have more time to work with.
“I come from the land of half-hour, where you’re just given more time,” he points out. “Initially, I felt so uncomfortable with 15 minutes but it actually whipped my writing into shape because it had to be so lean and tight.” Still, he would prefer to be able to spend more time with Ryan’s interiority, and with the inner lives of characters like Kim (Punam Patel), an EggWoke coworker who befriends Ryan as he learns how to climb the website’s viral charts.
That was a skill O’Connell knew how to channel instantly. “I feel like I write very universal things. When I worked at Thought Catalog, I would have called them pop songs, avocado toast, you know? I really was just boiling down human wants and needs to the simplest form, and people would relate to them,” he explains, though he concedes that having someone like Kim around, who could have helped him navigate how much of himself to share with the world, would have been helpful. “I didn’t have anyone looking out for me when I was doing it. Obviously,” he remembers. “How the fuck do you develop boundaries at age 20? A lot of what you do is trial and error.”
That process is true for any 20-year-old, whether or not they’re baring their soul for start-up websites, and across a variety of identities and experiences. (To those people, O’Connell cautions against doing so at an EggWoke-style site, given that everything on the Internet is, in some way, permanent and can come back to haunt you. He jokingly suggests Tumblr as an alternative.)
He also hopes that Special and shows like it signify a shift in how viewers engage with stories that don’t necessarily mirror their lived experiences, and learn something about themselves in the process. “The show is going to be relatable to gay people and disabled people, but people who aren’t gay or disabled can also see themselves in the material,” he adds, pointing to how marginalized people who did not see themselves represented on screen would still relate to a majority white, straight, cisgender, non-disabled experience. “We always found ways to relate to characters that didn’t look or sound like us. And the idea that you can only connect with people that are like you is kind of silly.”
It’s that core truth that connects Ryan with his EggWoke readers, just as it did with O’Connell and the people who read his essays all those years ago. And while TV and movies have finally given rise to inclusive storytelling out of more than simply lip service, it’s arguable that the shift started thanks in part to social media and confessional websites; because people who had things to say but never felt heard suddenly had an audience. Because you could write listicles about what it felt like to be a very logged-on, insecure 20-something, and strangers would understand. Because that was their lived experience, too.
“Human experience has a lot of universal threads,” O’Connell says. “And I really wanted to show that with Special. Ryan’s struggles are your struggles. This character is just a classic underdog, and he struggles with feeling like he’s enough, which is a very universal feeling. There are things that are unique to my life, but this character is just like anyone else in terms of what kind of life he wants to have.”
And what does a horny, multi-dimensional writer want out out his human experience? The answer won’t surprise you: “He wants to be happy.”