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Television Special and Gentleman Jack: two superb and disruptive series

Special is a distinctive and uplifting new series about a gay man, Ryan with mild cerebral palsy who decides to rewrite his identity and finally go after the life he wants.

Courtesy of Netflix

There’s a lot to be said for a long weekend. Especially a four-day weekend, as this one is for some people. Time to reflect, time to relax. Perhaps even enter into worlds that are far from everyday existence. There are two such worlds to explore on TV/streaming. Both are funny and wise, and both are set in arenas we are lamentably ignorant about.

Special (now streaming on Netflix Canada) has a title that plays, ironically, on the situation of its protagonist Ryan (creator Ryan O’Connell). He’s a gay man with a disability. He’s also hilarious.

In the first episode – there are only eight and each comes in at about 15 minutes – Ryan gets hit by a car. It’s not the first time it has happened to him. He has cerebral palsy and has a lot of accidents. Thing is, he’s just started as an intern at a web site and nobody there knows yet that he has a disability. He does mention the car hitting him. His editor and boss is astonished and commands the staff to gather and give him a hug. “Poor Ryan. He was hit by a car and now he has a weird, sad life forever!” Ryan is delighted.

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The series, based on O’Connell’s own life, writings and a podcast, is devilishly funny and madcap. There are two strands of fun intertwined. First, Ryan is full of snark abut his existence as a gay man with a disability. He can’t find a date or a mate. His sarcasm and self-deprecation is rapid-fire and sharp. Second, there’s a marvellous satire of online journalism going on.

Ryan’s job is with a set called “eggwoke”, which peddles confessional blogging to get as many clicks as possible. It’s run by the phenomenally self-absorbed Olivia (Marla Mindelle), who takes soulless sarcasm to a new level. Ryan fits in nicely in this addled place and wants to write all sorts of outrageously lurid confessional material about himself.

What’s spectacularly good about this odd little series is the buoyant quality it has. It breezes along from one comic scene to another. What’s also odd is that the show has been in development for years and was rejected by several networks. Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory is now an executive producer and Netflix is the perfect home for it.

The series is based on creator Ryan O’Connell’s own life, writings and podcast.

Courtesy of Netflix

Gentleman Jack (Monday, Crave/HBO, 10 p.m.) is stunningly good. If you’re a connoisseur of British period drama you’ll recognize the milieu at the start and then get disoriented. As you are meant to be.

The eight-episode series is based on the true story – the diaries, mainly – of Anne Lister, a well-to-do Yorkshire landowner who lived an astonishing life of extensive travel, business and more lesbian relationships than you can shake a horse whip at. The drama is written by Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley) and stars Suranne Jones (Doctor Foster) as Anne. It’s a giddily paced, funny and irreverent depiction of a very irreverent woman.

We meet Anne in 1832 when she is 41 and, as always, dressed entirely in black and bossing everyone around. She’s just returned to the fading grand house and estate of her family – the crispness and bluntness of the dialogue rings like an inspired send-up of Victorian-era dramas – and getting over yet another disastrous love affair with a woman. Inevitably, the women she falls for or seduces go on to marry men and deny they were ever in love with her.

To call Anne larger than life would be an understatement. But the series is far more than a broad-canvas portrait of an unconventional woman. Anne pauses sometimes to talk to the camera, telling the audience about what simmers beneath that hard exterior. We see her enter the coal business, as the men who run the industry underestimate her and she triumphs. But not in a stand-up-and-cheer manner. It’s an ugly business, the industrial coal racket. And much of Anne’s secret and inner life is devoted to the heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle from Bodyguard), who loves her back, but is afraid of what that means.

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Lively, tongue-in-cheek at times and enormously playful, Gentleman Jack is an utter gem of British drama. You can’t take your eyes off the central character, and you’re drawn into her world and her heart with exquisite ease.

Special is now streaming on Netflix Canada.

Courtesy of Netflix

Also airing this weekend

Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration (Sunday, CBS, City TV, 8 p.m.) is your toe-tapping, nostalgia-laden musical weekend treat. Sixty years of Motown is celebrated, but in Los Angeles, not Detroit. The special has Smokey Robinson co-hosting with Cedric the Entertainer, and performances by Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Martha Reeves. Also, John Legend, Ciara, Ne-Yo, Boyz II Men and Thelma Houston. If you think this type of packaged all-star music special is irrelevant, take note that 35 years ago Michael Jackson introduced the Moonwalk and the world went crazy over his performance of Billie Jean on NBC’s Motown 25 special.

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