The writer, creator, and star dishes on bringing his personal experiences to a wider audience with one of the best new shows of the year.
Special is one of the best television shows of the year. I don’t think that because I’m gay and its vibrant, energetic creator and star, Ryan O’Connell, is also gay. It has nothing to do with sexuality. Special succeeds because it delivers a truthful human experience and reminds us how important empathy is. None of us are perfect, and we can learn from one another every day.
O’Connell is a ball of excitable joy. Special was based on his own memoir I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, and you can tell that he’s thankful for this entire experience. This is really O’Connell’s acting debut, and he is never hesitant or self-conscious. Playing a version of yourself must be so surreal and insane, but O’Connell never lets us see that. The version of Ryan he plays on screen is sweet and effortlessly charming. He’s the type of character that you immediately want to get to know and you want to be his friend. The world of television can sometimes feel obsessed with finding the next Walter White or recreating the sensation of shows like Game of Thrones, but O’Connell is more concerned with creating an authentic story with true characters. Special is grounded in that simplicity.
Special‘s episodes are shorter than an average sitcom, but they are filled to the brim with emotion and thought. O’Connell is able to explore his own internalized ableism and insecurities of being in the gay community while also dealing with familiar conflicts between him and his mother, Karen (an understated and lovely Jessica Hecht). But what sets Special apart from other shows about the gay experience is Ryan’s thirst for experiences. The smile on O’Connell’s face throughout the season is adorable and infectious, and I can’t wait to see what Ryan searches for in upcoming seasons.
My husband and I watched Special all in one day. It’s a very easy binge.
Oh, I love hearing that.
How has it been for you since the show premiered?
Honestly? It’s been fucking psycho. To give you an example of my life right now, I went to New York to do press and then DC to speak at the Kennedy Center. I flew from DC to LA today. After this I’m doing a panel with Gregg Araki and some showrunners.
Oh, my God—I love Gregg Araki.
Right? My brain is like scrambled eggs. I feel like I’ve been in a daze for the last 2 months. I was doing press before I went to New York. I had a full-time job working on 90210 so I was doing press in the morning and at night and then going to the writer’s room. I’m word vomiting all over you.
I’m into it!
What I’m trying to say is that it’s been incredible. The response has been beyond my wildest dreams, because you never know how a show is going to be received. To see that people are so into it and want to talk to me about it, I feel so lucky. We live in a time of peak TV, so to rise above and peek through is incredible.
Where does Ryan find his optimism?
I don’t really know. Ryan is largely based on me, and I’ve always been an optimistic person. I don’t know why that is. I think you’re born with it. When you’re dealt with the deck of cards that I was dealt you either have two choices. You can either live in that victim hood and wonder why life has done you dirty this way or you can choose to be grateful and choose to be present. For me it was natural. This is what I’m living with, and it’s not great but what other choice do I have? This is the only body I’ll have, so be good to it and it will be good to you back.
I think another reason why the show is so successful is that Ryan is a genuinely nice person I don’t think we see very much.
Oh my god, it’s so funny that you say that. I really am getting tired of the aggressively unlikable person that has permeated into TV. At first it was like LOL and I get it, especially if it was a female character. I get it—they were playing into the idea of the antihero. I also don’t know anyone that is aggressively unlikable in real life. We all contain multitudes—everyone can be great or an asshole. I did want to create a show that felt optimistic and buoyant and good. In this era that we’re living in where the world is a dumpster fire, we give a little sunshine vibe.
I’ve always thought that you have to try to be an asshole to people. It doesn’t take any effort to be nice to people.
I know. I agree. I totally agree.
One of my favorite, favorite things is Ryan’s relationship with Karen. I think a lesser show wouldn’t have given her as much to do. The show is very generous to Jessica Hecht. Was having her character go through so much important to you?
Super important. I wasn’t actually interested in doing a show all about me. Maybe 23-year-old me would be into that, but 31-year-old me wasn’t. I was more interested in tracking Ryan and Karen as they try to individuate themselves from each other. I wanted to see what it would look like for a woman in her early 50’s to be going after the life that she wants while a 20 year old goes after the same. They are 20 years apart but they’re experiencing similar things at the same time. Two fish out of water in two different positions. Coupling Karen’s journey with Ryan’s was very important to me, because I think it gives them more texture and nuance. I also didn’t want to write a one-dimensional helicopter mom. I wanted to get into the nitty-gritty of how Karen is the way she is.
Jessica is really lovely, so I was really thrilled to see her get such a juicy role.
Yeah, she’s great.
You worked on the revival of Will & Grace. For a lot of people, like myself, they came out of the closet around its initial run. That show means a lot to people. Is there anything you learned while working on that show that you applied to Special? You know, not just because they have gay characters.
What I learned with Will & Grace is that some things feel funny in the moment while you’re writing it—they feel broad or big in the moment that you feel good about. But when you shoot it, you’ll feel gross. I love broad humor, and I think the scenes in EggWoke really demonstrate that with the character of Olivia. If you go too far into outer space, the show loses its grounding in reality, and I feel like it’s very important to keep your feet firmly placed on the ground. We block shot everything and we shot the EggWoke scenes first. That was the first week of filming. My producer, director, and I were like, ‘Did we make a broad ass 30 Rock show?’ We were having the time of lives. It was insane, but we got to the Karen stuff and it felt more real. Still funny but real. I’m really grateful for my director, Anna Dokoza, and my editor Tom Calderon, that we struck a balance. The show can feel really absurd at times, but I don’t think it ever goes off the wall. Will & Grace does that, too. It can be really zany, and Jack and Karen can be doing some really broad, crazy shit but the relationships are the backbone.
When I see scenes between Ryan and Olivia, I think, ‘Wow! They are literally polar opposites of one another.’
You recently said in an interview, “You don’t have to have cerebral palsy to relate to my story.” Is that simple notion of empathy something we’re missing in entertainment? I think it really helps that you have an emotional core to a comedy.
I never understood how someone struggled to relate to something that didn’t directly affect them. I’m a naturally empathetic person. When it boil it down, Ryan wants the same things that everyone wants out of life. He wants a good job, friends, and a good boyfriend. Everyone can relate to feeling like the underdog and that you’re losing the race with adulthood. The same way everyone else is, but Ryan just happens to be disabled. His life it not so different. I wanted to dispel that notion.
In episode 2, you get a fun scene with Brian Jordan Alvarez when Ryan loses his virginity. Were you nervous to do that or did he help you along the way?
We kind of dove in. Brian and I are friends but not close enough to do a sex scene together. Brian’s energy is…I have such a respect for him. He’s a creator, writer, and performer, and he’s a genius. I wrote it with him in mind. He’s a good unicorn. I’ve never met anyone like him, and I knew he could embrace this without feeling awkward or self-conscious or making me feel awkward or self-conscious. He was so generous for me that day. Brian was always there for me when I needed him, and he allowed me to be comfortable even when he’s in insanely good shape. He never made me feel weird about anything. He was my guiding light and let it be a great experience.
What would you want to tackle with season 2?
I think Karen and Ryan to be apart for a bit. I want to see what being truly separated does to both of them. Even though he’s on this journey for himself, he can always go back to her house. She’s never too far away—she’s his security blanket. What would that be like for not just Ryan, but for Karen? I really want to navigate what it’s like for them to separate fully and deal with that co-dependency.
I have to admit that, after seeing Special, I will never be able to look at a scone the same way again. And the last time I went to a gay bar, I almost got a banana daiquiri just to see what the reaction would be.
Oh my God! I would love to see the amount of daiquiris that get ordered in bars now.
I’ll do it and let you know how it goes!
Please, please do.
Special is streaming now on Netflix. Watch it. Seriously.