The Specials

TV review by
Emily Ashby, Common Sense Media
The Specials TV Poster Image
Webby-winning reality show encourages respect for diversity.

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Positive Messages

The series sets out to break down barriers by presenting cast members with intellectual disabilities living everyday lives. Because the Specials narrate the show themselves and always speak in honest terms about their ups and downs, it promotes compassion and empathy by providing a unique glimpse of what it's like to live with special needs. Its format is somewhat voyeuristic in nature, replaying the cast members' intimate and emotional moments for entertainment, but there's no sensationalism or manufactured drama. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

The cast members challenge stereotypes about people with special needs by letting viewers watch them live meaningful lives. They're active in their community, work to better themselves through school and work, and support each other through trials and triumphs. Support workers are integral to the Specials' success as well and often act as confidantes. 

Violence
Sex

The housemates' romances play out on-screen, and issues of the heart are frequent topics of conversation. Physical contact usually stops at kissing and hand-holding, but Sam in particular often mentions being attracted to women he thinks are sexy. Some scenes catch him in his boxers around the house. Body references include euphemisms such as "willy." 

Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Some scenes show adults -- including the housemates -- drinking and smoking, particularly those who follow the housemates out on the town or to vacation spots. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Specials is a Webby Award-winning reality series set in the home of five young adults with varying degrees of intellectual disabilities. Narrated entirely by the housemates -- four of whom have Down syndrome and one who has Williams syndrome -- the show has garnered praise for its honest and inspiring portrayal of everyday life with special needs. Cameras follow the cast members everywhere, from work to nights on the town (which sometimes involve drinking or smoking), capturing moments of joy and sadness. Each person's unique struggles are put on display, but the result never feels intrusive or sensationalist; instead it's a heartwarming discourse on the power of friendship and the importance of respecting diversity. Expect to see some physical affection (kissing, hand-holding, and hugging) between partners and to hear terms such as "sexy" and euphemisms such as "willy" in casual conversation. 

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What's the story?

THE SPECIALS follows five young adults with intellectual disabilities who share a home in Brighton, England. There's Hilly, whose desire to live with her friends prompted her parents, Dafydd and Carol, to open a home and make her dream a reality. Lucy, the oldest housemate and the only one who's not a college student, holds down a full-time job at a local business. Her former boyfriend, Sam, has high hopes for finding a lasting relationship but in the meantime has fun just seeking it out. Lewis and Megan round out the group, starting the series as boyfriend and girlfriend but eventually settling on just being friends. The housemates' special needs are the result of Down syndrome, with the exception of Lewis, who has Williams syndrome. 

Is it any good?

These 10-minute episodes are intimate glimpses of the ups and downs of the cast members' lives. By speaking entirely in the voice of the Specials, who rotate narrative responsibilities from one episode to the next in addition to appearing on-camera, the show forces viewers to adjust to the cast members' reality rather than relying on their own preconceptions about living with special needs. It's a remarkable and welcome change of pace from how intellectual disabilities often are portrayed on-screen, as the exception rather than the rule.

Even more remarkable is how easy it is to become engrossed in these inspiring characters' lives, rooting for their success and sympathizing with their trials. It makes for fantastic entertainment even as it strives to celebrate both diversity and the characters' uniqueness. The Specials is an excellent example of the value of purposeful reality TV that broadens horizons and educates viewers while escaping the sensationalist content that too often marks this genre. Such social value makes it well worth families' time.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can compare the characters' lives with their own. Are their goals reflective of yours? Do their relationships on The Specials influence them in a similar way? What unique challenges do they face, and how do they cope with them?

  • Does this series feel exploitative in any way? How does it compare to other reality series similar to it? Kids: Why are viewers drawn to shows that sensationalize people's lives? Can anything be learned from that kind of entertainment? 

  • Is diversity always a strength? How has our society evolved to better embrace the qualities that make each of us unique? What sets your kids apart from their peers? Do they feel pressure to fit in or conform to someone else's standards?  

  • How does The Specials promote compassion and empathy? Why are these important character strengths?

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