Ryan O'Connell and Rightor Doyle. Photos by Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images.
In April of this year, something unexpected and wonderful happened on TV. Two new Netflix series, Bonding and Special, introduced original and modern takes on queer storytelling. Debuting weeks apart to largely positive reviews, both series immediately stood out as a breath of fresh air in an endless flood of new content that has come out in recent months, with shows seemingly growing longer and more intense.
Created by and starring Ryan O’Connell (author and TV writer for the Will & Grace revival), Special tells the story of Ryan, a gay man with cerebral palsy stepping out from the protection of his helicopter mom to create a world of his own, which means moving out, making new friends and finding romance. While not directly based on his memoir, I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, O’Connell’s real-life experiences as a disabled man serve as a jumping off point for the series. Meanwhile, Bonding, created and directed by Rightor Doyle (actor in Barry and The Walker), follows a gay man named Pete struggling to make it as a comedian in New York City who becomes his best girlfriend Tiff’s dominatrix assistant, opening him up to the world of bondage and fetish. It, too, is also drawn from Doyle’s real-life experiences after first moving to the city, when he was guarding his friend’s door while also dealing with his sexual hangups.
At their core, these two loosely biographical series are based on different concepts, but what binds O’Connell and Doyle’s series together is their authentic exploration of gay men and their relationships to the straight women in their lives, sex-positive themes, and their short-form format, with episodes typically running 15 minutes or less. Coming out weeks apart, they’re inadvertent bookends to each other, or “sister shows,” O’Connell says.
“These are shows about understanding, and about people who are messy and not necessarily always doing the right thing but who are trying,” Doyle says. “At their essence, they're queer series. But I think they’re also really just shows about who people are.”
In phone conversations with ET, the two creators -- also good friends in real life -- discuss subverting TV norms, the constraints of telling a story in 15 minutes and what Emmy recognition would mean to them.
“I Didn’t Want to Neuter It”
What also links both shows is their groundbreaking nature, knocking down some of the last remaining taboos with open displays of queer sexuality on screen. On Special, Ryan hires an escort to take his virginity. The scene, one of the more realistic portrayals of gay sex, is awkward, sweet and importantly authentic. It’s also the first time anything like it -- a gay disabled man having sex -- was seen on TV. While there have been strides -- like the rimming scene on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder -- over the past decade, O’Connell says he stayed away from networks precisely because of that. “Part of the reason why I’m so excited to tell this story was to really examine the sexuality of a disabled person and I knew, for sure, that I wanted the show to have sex,” says O’Connell, who likes Netflix because there are “no rules.” He adds, “I didn’t want to neuter it.”
Whereas on Bonding the central theme is BDSM. While most of the sex-positive experiences are between two straight characters -- and there’s no shortage of great scenes -- Pete is not stripped of his sexuality. As Tiff’s assistant, he’s forced to confront his own hangups and, as a result, finds himself in unexpected sexual situations. And through Pete, audiences are taken on a journey that may be unfamiliar to them. “We wanted to draw them in to talk about something larger than being a dominatrix and larger than BDSM, which is the idea of sex positivity and understanding,” Doyle says. And given the show’s highly stylized esthetic, he hopes it’s “like a spoonful of sugar inviting the audience in the least scary way possible to have a conversation that maybe they wouldn't normally want to have.”
“Brave New World of Content”
Admittedly, both men didn’t set out to produce a series comprised of 15-minute episodes. But in their journeys to get the show made, it’s where they ended up. “In this brave new world of content that we are all now involved in and ingesting on a daily basis, I came to the project with the idea that there could be so many different ways to skin this cat,” Doyle says. “I had a 30-minute idea for the show, I had a 15-minute idea for the show, I had a two-minute idea for the show. Everywhere I went to talk about the project, I kind of reshaped my ideas for the show for their format.” Wanting to get this show made, especially as a first-time director, Doyle knew that he had “to be very flexible about how we can tell this story.”
For O’Connell, who found the format restricting, it wasn’t necessarily the ideal way to write but he’s really happy with the way it turned out. “Cynically, it was actually a great way to do the first season because, in today’s oversaturated landscape, people get overwhelmed… so, I think it’s a great way to actually stand out,” he says of finding an audience on Netflix. However, if the series gets a second season, he plans to expand the episodes’ run-time to accommodate all of the stories he wants to tell.
Ultimately, Doyle says the traditional formats -- 30-minute and hour-long shows -- are “arbitrary numbers” that were initially set up for advertisers. “We’re now in a place of being able to let that go and just tell the story that you want to tell as long as that story needs to be told,” he says, while also crediting Netflix for doing away with the rules and still saying “that actually, this is prestige television even if it’s not 30 minutes long.”
“What’s Good for the Goose Is Good for the Gander”
What also sets these two series apart is that they are both queer stories created by and starring queer people -- something that was important to both men. “It’s just thrilling because these opportunities have been few and far between,” Doyle says, adding: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Luckily, Special and Bonding are not unicorns; though, they are far from the norm. Recently, the LGBTQ community has seen an increase in representation in front of and behind the camera -- look at shows like Looking and Pose -- leading to more authentic storytelling while also opening the door for more queer creators. But it’s still not enough. “For me, moving forward, what I really want is gay stories told by gay people,” O’Connell says. “And that’s not because I don’t think straight people can tap into gay stories -- they absolutely can -- but we live in a world where there’s an uneven playing field. Straight people just have more opportunities as gay people; straight actors have more opportunities than gay actors. And I think in order for that to change, we really need to get queer people on TV to tell their stories and in by doing so, they will gain power. But you don’t get power if you don’t get opportunities.”
It’s also the reason why Doyle largely cast gay actors -- notably, Matthew Wilkas (Gayby) and Matthew Risch (Looking) -- in straight supporting roles on Bonding. “That was on purpose,” he says. “I am an actor myself and it’s hard as an out actor to be seen for roles that are for straight people whereas straight people are brave if they play gay parts. So I wanted to subvert that a little bit and I know how great these actors on the show are and they do great jobs in the roles that they’ve been given.”
“The Little Engine That Could”
Given the positive reception to both series, it would come as no surprise if both are among the nominees in the Emmys’ short-form categories, which largely have been dominated by digital spinoffs of existing TV franchises and not necessarily true originals. These two shows could go a long way to change that.
However, for the two creators, who both describe their series as “the little engine that could,” any recognition would go a long way to validate all the hard work that’s come before it. “I don’t want to jinx it or anything but it would be so, so incredible. We made Special with not a lot of resources, OK? It was a labor of love,” O’Connell says. “So, it is like a miracle that we pulled this off [and] I’m just so proud that we managed to accomplish this much with so little. So recognition from the Academy would be incredible. It just would.”
“There are so many different ways that we have been rewarded by having made this show… It’s been the most rewarding, challenging, wonderful experiences of my life,” Doyle says. “If people watch the show and they relate to it and they want to nominate it for an Emmy, it speaks to the people who have worked on the show and worked so hard to make something special and not just Ryan O’Connell ‘special.’”