Speaking with Awards Daily, Ryan O’Connell – the creator, writer, and star of the Emmy nominated series – details his experience on the final season of Special and what he will miss the most about Ryan.
Since the very first episode, Ryan O’Connell’s Special has always felt incredibly personal to me. As a gay, disabled, writer in Los Angeles I can deeply relate to Ryan’s experiences. It’s a world I understand and these are narratives that anyone can relate to whether that be navigating a complicated dating scene, defining boundaries in relationships whether that be romantic or familial, or breaking into an industry that you feel like an imposter in.
It’s also a fun season filled with unexpected relationships, a disabled prom, and no shortage of queer friendly guest stars from Ana Ortiz to Lauren Weedman to Leslie Jordan.
In the show’s second season, creator and star Ryan O’Connell was also given the opportunity to expand upon his Emmy nominated comedy and retool it as a thirty minute sitcom. With the extra time O’Connell is able to take Ryan’s experiences even further while also allowing much needed time to Punam Patel’s Kim and Jessica Hecht’s Karen to go on their own journeys. The result is a much more interesting exploration of relationships, dating, and self-discovery.
Speaking with Awards Daily, Ryan O’Connell details what it was like expanding the world view of Special and what it has been like saying goodbye to the groundbreaking series so soon. Speaking one-on-one O’Connell also becomes very candid about the complicated online reactions from fans that although well-meaning often times scream of ableism.
Awards Daily: For the second season of Special you were in a very interesting position because you had to restructure the show from a 15-minute web series to a 30 minute sitcom. What was that process like for you?
Ryan O’Connell: It was liberating. The real challenge with season one was writing it as a 15-minute show because for the past several years I have been writing in the more traditional thirty minute format. Cramming a lot of story into 15 minutes was took a of effort but now that I have that extra time it feels liberating. I can finally tell the stories that I want to tell without these extra confines.
AD: The expanded format really gave you the opportunity to tell three different stories between Ryan, Kim, and Karen. The result of that was seeing Ryan and Karen get into an argument and instead go on these completely different journeys. What was it like exploring both of these characters after they had been so co-dependent for so long?
RO: Selfishly I was bummed because I love working with Jessica Hecht. Whenever I work with her it comes with a sense of relief because I know it will all come so naturally. But if you’re a smart showrunner you don’t try to shoehorn things in just because you want to. It was really important for me to individuate both of these characters after seeing them be so co-dependent in season one.
The season picks up after their big fight and it was important to me to make sure it felt realistic. Family fights are real and they are complicated. I didn’t want to write it with the sitcomy thing where they reconnect after an episode. They needed to spend time apart and grow without each other. The time apart is necessary for them to redefine their relationship and understand what their boundaries are. We were setting the stage for them becoming their own people outside of that relationship. Because of that the payoff of Karen moving at the end is earned because we really have seen her stand on her own two feet. God! Why is every single phrase ableist?
AD: An aspect of the second season that I loved was that you were able to cram in so many layered romantic relationships for both Ryan and Kim. At first something felt off to me with Ryan’s relationships and then I realized it’s because these are very clearly TWO queer characters, played by queer actors which is something we don’t normally see on TV with most shows forcing in heteronormative aspects into the writing.
RO: I think it is very rare to get that authentic representation both in front of and behind the camera. To me, this show feels authentically queer. This is how gay men talk to each other. This is how they relate to each other, and these are their problems. Originally, when we were writing for Ryan and Henry we were leaning more into a triangle, almost like a Felicity, Ben and Noel moment, but then we realized it doesn’t really feel authentic to gay life. In my experience is that you become friends with somebody and then there’s that initial period where we’re trying to decide if we should fuck, if we’re lovers, or if we’re friends. After a while you either start dating or you repurpose each other as close friends. That’s been my experience with a number of my friends. In fact, one of my closest friends has dated both me and my boyfriend.
There’s a specificity to queer life and how we do love, sex, and relationships that isn’t explored. That’s why a love triangle feels heteronormative. It made me proud that we didn’t pair Henry and Ryan up at the end because it feels real.
AD: One of the moments that a lot of people asked me about was the hookup scene with the Hallmark actor where Ryan is fetishized. A lot of people don’t realize that was a very true experience for a lot of disabled people, including myself. What kind of reactions have you heard from fan about that scene?
RO: The reactions have been very similar to yours. For a lot of disabled people it’s part of the experience. That moment wasn’t taken from my own life but it was based off a number of disabled people’s experiences and it was important to me that we showed it. It was very much a consensual act but I wanted to show an experience where it was agreed to but if you had liked yourself 10% more you would have found a way to get out of it. Ryan in that scene doesn’t have the agency or the self-esteem to say that he doesn’t like it. Throughout the season we see him to continue to gain more of a sense of self and stand up for himself in ways that he never has before.
What I’m always trying to do is create a specificity that, whether you are disabled or not, everyone can relate to because most people have had sex with someone they wish they weren’t having sex with. They didn’t know how to not have sex with them. It’s not necessarily exclusive to being disabled or being fetishized but it’s sex that you do not like and you don’t know how to negotiate yourself out of.
AD: A moment that hit me emotionally throughout the season was when Ryan joins “The Crips” and goes to Crip Prom. As Ryan said in the show before that episode he never really had any disabled friends. Especially as an adult it’s really hard to find that type of community. What was it like to explore that dynamic and work with so many of those amazing actors and comedians like Danielle Perez?
RO: In the first season, because of where Ryan is as a character, he goes on a date with a deaf person and has that internalized ableism moment. It was a season that by design didn’t lend itself to having other disabled characters. That was what I was most excited about for season two was the fact that Ryan could find a disabled friend group.
That was something that was ripped from my diary. Growing up I didn’t have many disabled friends. My parents were well-intentioned but misguided to where they wanted me to be normal and be around “normal” people. I understand exactly why they did that but it meant that I didn’t grow up around anyone that reminded me of myself and it did a number on me.
It was so amazing to be on set and be in the majority for once. I remember shooting crip prom and looking around the set and realizing there was literally more disabled people on set than there were disabled people. That never happens and all it took was my own Netflix show!
AD: When someone is a multihyphenate on their own show while starring, writing, and producing audiences often conflate the actor with the character. What would people be surprised to hear where you are the most different than Ryan?
RO: I’m not awkward in the way that Ryan is awkward. Early on in my life I learned that as a gay disabled person I would need to become one charming motherfucker. I was always socially adept. I knew my job was to be disarming to put people at ease and not make them feel pity or confusion. I was always aware.
Ryan is a lot more arrested development than I was. He lived with Karen until he was in his 20s. That’s pretty intense. He didn’t have a group of friends and he was much more awkward than I ever was.
The situations Ryan finds himself in are all fictional but the emotional undercurrent of his journey is all ripped from my diary. These are all feelings I have all struggled with.
AD: What are you going to miss the most about Ryan?
RO: He’s a total sweety. Although the response to this season has been all over the place. A lot of people think he’s the villain. I find that weird because all these people are stanning Walter White who cooks meth and kills people but want to burn Ryan at the stake because he’s sort of rude once?
He’s very sweet. He’s very earnest. The character did not click for me until I went to my first fitting and put on the ill-fitting khakis and the weird picnic spread shirt. He was such a dork. I was never that way and I loved it. I was much more of a bitch.
AD: Speaking of the fan reactions I also noticed a lot of interesting reactions to the relationship between Ryan and Tanner, especially that bottoming scene. Everyone was so quick to judge Ryan and I found that odd because it wasn’t my takeaway from that relationship. Prior to that Tanner had made so many rude comments and microaggressions that it seemed like a lot of people were quick to forgive but god forbid Ryan doesn’t know how to bottom?
RO: I have a lot of thoughts on this! I wrote that fight with the rule that both needed to be right. I wanted whatever Tanner said to ring true and I wanted whatever Ryan said to ring true. I didn’t want there to be a hero because that’s not real life. People are always complicit. Ryan is entitled to feel how he wants and Tanner is entitled to ask questions Both can be true and not allowing yourself to see the humanity in both characters and instead looking at it through this binary just does yourself a disservice.
However, from my perception people were very quick to judge Ryan. Tanner could do something unkind, and they would give him a pass but there was always a harsher lens of judgement on Ryan. I was disappointed in that. I think it is a product of ableism. I think people get annoyed when they see a disabled person who doesn’t always act perfect. There are a lot of fans of this show who need Ryan to act a certain way for them to still feel connected. People feel uncomfortable because saw some of their own behavior in Tanner’s microaggressions and it made them feel defensive. The call was coming from inside the house.
If Tanner had made those comments about any other marginalized group there would be zero tolerance. No one would ever forgive that character and he would have been shipped off to cancellation school. People are much more forgiving to what happens to disabled people because those conversations are not as deep yet. It’s complicated babe. I’m not going to lie it’s a little disappointing but it speaks to the fact that we have a long way to go in terms of what we allow disabled people to be.