As he set out to develop Special, a short-form series that eventually wound up at Netflix, creator/star Ryan O’Connell was faced with a seemingly impossible task, encapsulated within a simple question: How does one sell a show centered on a gay, disabled lead?
Based on a memoir by O’Connell, who began his career as a blogger before making the leap into the TV writers’ room, Special tells the story of Ryan, a gay man with mild cerebral palsy who is ashamed of his disability, concealing the cause of his limp from his coworkers, until he decides to fully embrace who he is, moving full speed toward adulthood and an intimacy he has never known.
Along with husband and creative partner Todd Spiewak, The Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons optioned the rights to O’Connell’s memoir in 2015—but even as the series edged closer to production, and moved through it, the key creative behind Special was certain the series would fail.
With the backing of Parsons and Netflix, O’Connell wound up with remarkable up-and-coming talents behind the camera, and an exceptional cast in front of it, who came together to craft a polished short-form series of uncommon humor and depth. The most astounding moment, for O’Connell, occurred on July 16, when the Emmy nominations came out, and Special was recognized with four, the most of any short-form series this year.
In this moment, the Special creator had come full-circle. Once afraid to share his true self with the world—and even going to great lengths to hide it—O’Connell was now being celebrated for his honesty, his authenticity, and everything that made him who he was. “It’s beyond what I could have hoped and dreamed for. It’s really overwhelming, it just is. I feel like this show is the Little F*cking Engine That Could,” O’Connell says. “I’m just really grateful, and I hope there’s a lot more to come.”
From a distance, it seems like you’ve gone through a meteoric rise in your career. Has it felt like a whirlwind?
It is a whirlwind in a lot of ways, but it hasn’t been an overnight process. I’ve been working in television since 2013, when I got staffed, so I’ve been in rooms for the past six years. Special was a long, long journey; it took four years, from door to door. I think it was optioned in April 2015 and came out in April 2019, so it was a real journey [laughs].
It was really, really hard to sell a show with a gay, disabled lead, quite frankly, so we had to take a lot of different pathways to getting it made. It’s funny: When we pitched in 2015 and no one bought it, I was so distraught. But looking back, it kind of worked out exactly the way it needed to. Not to sound self-helpy or whatever, but it’s true.
We went to this digital branch of Warner Bros., Stage 13, and they were doing short-form content. They commissioned me to write these eight scripts and I did, and that process was really long, too, because I was always in rooms, writing and working. Special was always my weekend hoe; I couldn’t put a ring on it because no one could afford to pay me to put a ring on it. So then, when I finished the scripts, we sent them to Netflix, I think, cold. We didn’t go into Netflix and pitch or anything, and they were like, “Oh, we’ll do this.” It was so anticlimactic [laughs]. [After] years of “No, no, no,” it was like, “Sure.” I didn’t even know the scripts were getting sent to Netflix. My producer did it, and then it sort of just took off from there.
Obviously, your executive producer Jim Parsons had a history with Warner Bros. prior to Special. What did he bring to this series?
[Special] was [That’s Wonderful Productions]’s first project, so we kind of broke our development cherries together—which was an amazing process, because I was so new to the business. I was a story editor on Awkward.; I had only been working in the business a year and a half. I was 27, so I didn’t really know what I was doing, but Jim and Todd were kind of going at it with a pair of fresh eyes, as well. I think we just really wanted to make something that was meaningful. It sounds corny but it’s true, and we weren’t like jaded b*tches, by any means. I hadn’t gone through the development process, so I didn’t hate everything yet, so I think that was almost an advantage.
I met with a bunch of studios and production companies. There was a bidding war over the project, and there were a lot more experienced producers wanting to do it, [but] I always go by gut instinct. There’s a lot of psychos in this business, so when you find non-psychos and people that are just normal, you tend to grab onto them and stay close.
Jim and his partner Todd were always so incredible. I really vibed with them, and they understood exactly what I wanted to do—that I didn’t want to go to network, which was another point of contention. I went over to the studio and actually backed out because I refused to go to network, because the thought of putting my gay, disabled baby in the hands of CBS or something sent chills down my spine. Because I knew that so much of that story was around Ryan’s sexuality—and I also wanted to feature gay sex, and do all the things that I ended up doing in Special. I knew that A, a network wouldn’t let me do that, obviously, and B, the chances of it dying after they bought the pilot were so high. I could see them in the room, wanting to buy it because it’s edgy and chic, and then I write it and they’re like, “What the f*ck did we just buy? We can’t put this on television.” And then it’s Gone Girl after that.
What informed your decision to adapt your memoir into a short-form series? What was your process in breaking story?
I come from the land of half-hours, so short-form was a really new journey for me, and I’m still not entirely convinced that it is perfect for short-form [laughs]. Like, hopefully we pulled it off, but it’s a struggle, I’ll be completely honest with you. Because usually, you have an A story with a B story, with a C story; well, in 15 minutes, you can only have an A story and a [brief] B story, which is why for Episode 5, I had to switch gears and tell it from Karen’s point of view, in order for her to be fully fleshed-out like Ryan was. So, it was a lot of rejiggering, a lot of learning things as I went along. It was a lot of trial and error, a lot of me biting off more than I could chew and realizing, “Oh, I have to scale this story back, because I literally have 14 pages to do it in.”
So, it was a real process. I’m not going to say that these scripts float out of me so easy-breezy. It was like there were contractions during the birth, you know what I mean? It was about as messy as my actual birth, where I came out of my mom literally blue and dying.
It was a real beast. I’m proud of it, though, I really am. Blood, sweat and queers went into the scripts, and I’m really proud of it because I think we jam-packed a lot in. And also now looking back at it, I’m really grateful for short-form, because I think in today’s over-saturated TV landscape, it’s like another f*cking TV show is really overwhelming for people. But Special was so short and so bingeable that I think it probably brought us a bigger audience than if we were a half-hour. So again, everything in this story of getting it made, it’s like what initially felt like a troll ended up being the best thing possible.
Could you flesh out a sense of how this series was brought to life on screen, with the exceptional talents you had on board, above and below the line?
Here’s the thing: This shouldn’t have worked out [laughs]. I’m being completely honest with you. We had no money; we were shooting in Austin, Texas for Los Angeles, and it was deathly hot all summer. We had me, a first-time f*cking actor, writing all the episodes without a writers’ room, and we also had Anna Dokoza, who, although she’s an experienced producer, with Baskets and Insecure and Divorce, had only directed an episode of Lady Dynamite. So, it’s like literally babe, this could have gone so f*cking wrong.
With everything, I just lead with my gut. I met with a ton of directors, and when I met Anna, I was like, “Oh, she just gets it.” I’m a Type A Virgo from Hell, so I throw myself with perfectionists—Anna Dokoza’s a perfectionist; Eric Norsolph and Alison Mo Massey, [who] were my execs at that point, before they were my producers, they are perfectionists. I think in LA, you just kind of realize that not many people know how to do their job, so you just surround yourself with people that know how to do their f*cking jobs [laughs].
Everyone [in the cast] was just so crazy talented. I don’t want to sound witchy, but the whole experience felt very guided. It felt like something was watching over it—because again, at any moment, there are so many things that could go wrong. We were working with such limited resources, and it just never did, and I think it really was just great chemistry.
I cast a lot of my friends. Marla Mindelle, who played Olivia, is my boyfriend’s writing partner. Punam Patel, I had actually never met her before, but we had mutual friends, and we just connected immediately. Brian Jordan Alvarez is a friend of mine. Jessica Hecht was close to Jim Parsons, and Anna Dokoza knew Patrick Fabian; it was all just friends. It was all of us being like, “Hey, babe. There’s like two dollars to go around, but let’s try to make something great.”
It’s clear that as an actor, you put a lot of yourself into Special. Speaking with you now, your gift for puns is clear, and the puns in the episode titles are so good, it’s as if you reverse engineered episodes around them.
I wish I could say I did, but I didn’t. But punning is a disease. It’s nothing to be proud of. It’s a condition that afflicts so many people, and we don’t talk about it, as a culture—and I feel like we need to talk about it.
Is the codependent mother/son dynamic in the series autobiographical, as much of the series is? How did you work through your scenes with Jessica Hecht, which sit at the heart of the show?
It’s definitely based on my own relationship with my mom, but a heightened version of course. I think it’s like this show is wish fulfillment for my mom. I think I’ve always wanted to know, what would my mom do if she actually thought about her own wants and needs? Because she’s such a caretaker. I think this kind of answers that question—what would happen if my mom gained some agency and really thought about the things that make her happy, besides just putting everyone else before herself. So, this was sort of my free therapy session to do that.
With Jessica, it was so interesting because we never saw her read. We just knew that she’d be perfect. I think there’s a lot of different ways you could go with that character, and Jessica made so many smart choices. She didn’t play the nagging sitcom mom, the helicopter mom that was just obsessive. There was a real gentleness to her, and a real fragility and kookiness also that’s something I never thought of when I was writing the character. Her interpretation of Karen is not like my mom at all—not to say I wanted her to be like my mom. I was looking for somebody to really just do what they wanted to do with it, and Jessica just brought such a unique energy to the part.
What are your thoughts on representation on screen today, when it comes to the LGBTQ community?
[There have been] strides, for sure, but I think we still have a long way to go. I think that TV, in a lot of ways, is gayer than ever, of course. I think that in every show now, they’re like, “There has to be a queer person,” but rarely is it their journey and their experience. They’re usually supporting. So, it’s still, to me, revolutionary to put a marginalized person as the star and make it about them, so they’re not there to give you advice about boys over a chopped salad. It’s really about their rich interior life.
Also, it’s really important that when our stories be told, that it’s told by people who have lived it. That’s something that I don’t think we’re quite getting to fast enough. I mean, Bonding is an example of that; Pose is an example of that. But we also had Boy Erased, which was written by a straight guy. That’s fine, whatever.
But the thing is, I’m very vocal about casting gay [actors] in gay roles, and it’s not because I don’t think that a straight man could write a movie about a gay person. Absolutely they could, and that’s their right. And it’s not like I think, “Oh, a straight person can’t play gay.” Of course they can. But we don’t live in an equal playing field, okay?
The reality is that straight people have more opportunities than gay people. That is literally the reality. So it’s like, if you can give people a leg up, and give them opportunities, and give them jobs—which will translate into power, and money, and a real position in this industry—then if you’re in that position to give them that job, of course I’m going to give them that f*cking job. There are so many talented gay actors, for example, that I just know would be bigger if they weren’t out and gay.
So, look. It’s important that the stories of marginalized people get told by the marginalized people that have lived that experience. That’s the only way that marginalized people will no longer be marginalized, and see some real change in their station, in this culture.
Would you say the disabled community is even further behind, in its fight for representation?
Oh honey, we’re limping along—limping our way to the finish line. Sometimes, our stories get told, but a disabled person will be held as a consultant—and you’re like, “Why not put them in the f*cking room as a writer? Thought about that?” We’re not going to advance by just being a consultant. It’s like you’re profiting off our story, and you’re not giving us any real opportunity, so why don’t you actually do an open thing and look for a disabled writer that has lived this experience? Not only do I think it’s just important to do that, but I think from a creative standpoint, it makes the most sense. You’re going to get better stories.
What did it mean to you to see Special recognized with four Emmy nominations?
Oh my God, it’s beyond meaningful. When I first went out and pitched the show and everyone said no, it was really emotional, and also very hurtful, because on a level they were saying, “We’re not ready for your story. We’re not ready for people like you to have center stage.” So, it was really, really hard for me.
What’s frustrating is that I felt that if I got the opportunity to make the show, that it would resonate beyond the gay and disabled communities. Because storytelling is just creating empathy for the human experience. We see ourselves in things that are not directly our identities all the time. That’s the power of storytelling; you empathize, and you’re able to relate. So, even though this show comes in a gay, disabled package, honey, you take off the wrapping paper and you’re going to see something that looks just like you.
So, getting this kind of recognition from the Academy is so meaningful, and it’s validating because I always believed in it when no one else did. It also shows that stories like this one have value, and when stories like this one have value, it means that people like me have value. When you don’t see yourself being reflected back at you, you’re implicitly told that you don’t matter. So, to be welcomed in this way, from the highest level of recognition, is just beyond touching and important, I think.
Special‘s Season 1 finale is open-ended, suggesting that there’s more story to be told. Are you hoping to do a second season?
Yes, of course. Nothing has been confirmed yet, but I would really like to do a Season 2.