'The Specials' spotlights intellectually disabled 20-somethings
Game of Thrones co-creator D.B. Weiss is known for the elaborate, fantastical world of the HBO series, but one of his latest projects doesn’t involve dragons or direwolves: It’s a reality show called The Specials, originally a U.K. series of webisodes following a group of intellectually disabled 20-somethings living in a house together.
“I found myself rooting for them, hoping for them, yelling at the screen when it felt like they were heading in the wrong direction,” Weiss, who executive produces the series, said of the first time he saw the webisodes. “It felt like a tremendous shame that more people weren’t aware of this singular piece of work.” Oprah Winfrey watched the webisodes, created by Katy Lock and Daniel May, and agreed. Sunday, the series is airing as a marathon on Winfrey’s network, OWN.
Weiss also got Carolyn Strauss, whose credits include producing shows like Game of Thrones and Treme, on board to executive produce and turn the show from short webisodes into full-length, half-hour episodes. “I was like, this has to be a show, it’s so good,” Strauss tells EW.
Although The Specials follows five people with intellectual disabilities (four have Down syndrome, while Lewis has Williams syndrome), the show never explicitly mentions their conditions. Instead, it focuses on giving a glimpse into the lives of these five people who lead ordinary lives: In the first episode, for example, one has his heart broken, and another is nervous about his girlfriend moving in.
“I just hope it opens a window for people and gives them the chance to look out on life in a way they hadn’t experienced before,” Strauss says. She got on the phone with EW to talk more about what she hopes viewers get from watching, her favorite moments from the series, and what makes The Specials so special.
EW: How’d you get involved with the series?
CAROLYN STRAUSS: I got involved because my friend and partner, Dan Weiss, who’s one of the creators of Game of Thrones for HBO, he’s like oh my God, you have to check this out online. And there was this series of shorts that was on the web called The Specials and I was like, this has to be a show, it’s so good. And when Dan and I were in London, we called Katy and Dan, the English Dan, and said, are you going to do this? And they’re like, well, we would love to, we just… I guess most of the U.S. buyers had wanted to sort of just buy the format rights. I said no, no, no, these guys are the best.
What would you say to people who haven’t seen the show and are worried it might be exploitative?
When you think, OK, it’s a reality show that takes place in a house, you think Jersey Shore, Real World, all that kind of stuff, where there are staged situations that put people into conflict with one another, and the more drama they get turned up, the better the ratings. But this is expansive to us. And the fact of how these people live, how they go through their lives, it really breaks down barriers between people with Down syndrome, or in Lewis’ case, Williams syndrome, and people who don’t have it. They’re sort of ambassadors in a lot of ways to people who don’t really know very much about this.
You typically work on fictional shows, like Games of Thrones, so did you have any reservations about working on a reality show?
I was excited by it. I was excited to do, given that [reality TV] is such a popular genre right now, and yet I think an often sort of plundered one. The opportunity to do it and do it in a different sort of way was pretty enticing to me.
What do you hope viewers get from watching this show?
Number one, I hope they fall in love with the residents of the house as much as I did. To me, they’re just so interesting to watch because of the way they throw themselves into their lives with full emotion and full joy. And sadness when it’s appropriate, or frustration. I just hope it opens a window for people and gives them the chance to look out on life in a way they hadn’t experienced before.
Do you have a favorite moment from the series?
There’s a moment in a couple of episodes down the line where Hilly’s really, really upset and Lucy comes to comfort her and I love that moment. I love that these guys really work to support each other and I feel like they’re really trying to be honest with each other. There’s something incredibly heartening about that, to me, the bond that these guys have with one another. It’s like if somebody’s down, they try and cheer them up. It’s just like, wow, why can’t everybody be like that? [Laughs] They have something that I think of a lot of people would really like in terms of that kind of non-blood family that they seem to have with each other.
OWN will air a 13-episode marathon of The Specials Sunday beginning at 2:30 p.m. ET until 9 p.m. ET.