How Netflix’s ‘Special’ is just like an Ariana Grande song

Ryan O’Connell knew that his story was universally relatable, but he was wary of whether or not he could convince others to realize that, too.

The star and creator of Netflix’s “Special,” which is based on his own life experience as a gay man with cerebral palsy, worried about this until the short-form show hit the streaming platform last spring.

“I remember making it and being in post-production being like, ‘Is anyone going to see this? Is any of this going to matter?’ I had no idea,” O’Connell told In The Know’s Gibson Johns recently. “That’s why, when we did get such a positive response, it was so validating because [of] all those years that I’ve been told, ‘No,’ and my story had been rejected, my voice had been rejected, it was just like, ‘Oh, no. See, this does have value.'”

In order to express his point, the former “Will & Grace” writer compared his touching, hilarious show to something that everyone is familiar with these days: An Ariana Grande song.

“I’ve always looked at ‘Special’ as a top 40 Ariana Grande pop song, but in unconventional packaging,” he explained. “You take the gay disabled wrapping paper off and it’s truly just ‘God is a Woman’ staring back at you.”

“The more personal you are, the more universal it becomes,” O’Connell went on. “Ryan [the character] is just an underdog; Ryan is an underdog who’s just trying to get the things in life that he thinks he deserves, which is a job, a boyfriend, a healthy relationship with his mom. That’s not insane!”

By taking his own life experiences, which could seem niche or highly specific on their surface, and showing the millions of Netflix users that, actually, a lot of his own desires and obstacles are just like everyone else’s, O’Connell demonstrates that there is a universality to the 21st century human experience. It’s that acknowledgement of our common ground that he says we could use more of these days.

“[Those are] things that everybody struggles with, whether they’re gay or disabled or not. And so, I always knew that this story was not niche or fringe. I just knew that it could have crossover appeal,” he explained. “That is the job of the storyteller, is to create empathy and to have people see themselves in characters that they thought they had nothing in common with.”

For more from “Special” star Ryan O’Connell, listen to his full, 24-minute interview with In The Know below:

For reference, see below for a timecode breakdown of In The Know’s interview with Ryan O’Connell:

0:44 – 7:02: Ryan talks about working on season 2 of the Netflix show during quarantine, what fans can expect from the second season and how his life has been affected by the show’s success.

7:03 – 10:00: Ryan talks about why “Special” has 15-minute episodes and how that helps (or hurts) his storytelling and the show’s ability to stand out.

10:01 – 16:19: Ryan talks about the journey of getting “Special” made and the importance of telling his story in a universal way.

16:20 – 18:04: Ryan talks about how he came to play Ryan and whether he thinks characters from marginalized communities should only be played by actors who fit those identities.

18:05 – 19:55: Ryan talks about fans’ responses to “Special.”

19:56 – 24:15: Ryan talks about his relationship with acting and where he hopes his career goes from here.

If you liked this story, check out In The Know’s recent interview with fellow Netflix star Taylor Tomlinson here.

More from In The Know:

This actor turned a jockstrap into a no-sew face mask

This online pharmacy is full of essentials to stock in your medicine cabinet

This celeb-loved skincare brand has a set that’s under $90 right now

The absolute best black bags to buy during Nordstrom’s spring sale