Review: Hannah Gadsby Pivots To Feel-Good Rom-Com On ‘Something Special’

By Aditya Mani Jha 11 May 2023 3 mins read

Hannah Gadsby allows themselves to just have some fun on 'Something Special', their third outing on Netflix.

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Hannah Gadsby begins Something Special with an admission: they believe the audience is owed a “payoff” in the form of a “feel-good” special. The reason? They’ve put the audience “through a lot of shit” over the years. Gadsby’s last two specials Douglas (2019) and Nanette (2018) were mould-breaking, polemic works that demanded a certain degree of emotional investment and critical thinking from the audience. Something Special, therefore, is built, packaged and sent forth into the world explicitly as a palate-cleanser. It’s like when George Miller made the super-intense Mad Max films plus The Twilight Zone movie and The Witches of Eastwick, and then followed them all up with the warm-and-cuddly Babe. Artists are people, too, and nobody can go full throttle for years on end without a change of pace (especially after they picked a fight with the Netflix CEO over Dave Chappelle’s transphobia).

Something Special is about Gadsby getting married (to their producer and this special’s director Jenny Shamash) and finding a measure of peace and stability in life. It is conventionally structured, with smaller routines (about rabbits, exes, and the idiosyncrasies of Aussie nicknames) tallying up efficiently in service of the final act; the story of how Gadsby came to propose. The actual story keeps getting deliberately and artfully segued out of sight, while Gadsby regales the audience with the ‘smaller’ routines and sideshows. For example, at one point a joke about their wedding becomes an entirely more slippery affair about “tricking a Christian baker” (the ‘right to refusal of service’ to queer couples has always been a major talking point in conservative Christian circles).  

Gadsby is similarly effective while talking about the improvisational aspect of their proposal—things were really, really not going to plan because there never was a plan.

“I didn’t wake up and go, ‘Today’s the day’,” Gadsby says. “I pretty much ambushed both of us. I didn’t have a speech. I didn’t have a ring. I didn’t have a destination. I did not get down on bended knee. F*ck that sh*t. I have had three knee reconstructions. My patella are spongy. It’s actually quite painful for me to kneel. That’s why I can’t sleep with men.” At this point Gadsby pauses to let the applause die down.

“That’s a joke, and it doesn’t even make sense! There are plenty of other compelling reasons,” they say with a knowing smirk. From that point on “…and that’s why I can’t sleep with men” becomes a kind of bonus punch line for Something Special. Gadsby buttons up a lot of perfectly well-behaved jokes with this line, just because they can. I felt really happy for them, truth be told. Because in Something Special, Gadsby isn’t really worried about impact or dramatic tension or narrative sleight-of-hand (a phrase that’s at the center of one of the funniest jokes here). They’re just here for a good time, as advertised.

Something Special is very good at merging Big Ideas with innocuous stories in [a] subtle, under-the-radar way.

That being said, Something Special is very, very astute when it wants to be. Like Douglas and Nanette, it features Gadsby’s signature blend of cultural criticism and confessional stories. When they’re done telling a story about an ex, they circle back to tell us that trauma tends to blunt the edges of memory. But they do so in a way that also makes solid points about how modern pop culture, especially movies, leave you feeling curiously numb, unmoved.     

“And the thing about sh*t things, sh*t life, is that you’re never having a sh*t life and your brain’s going, ‘Let’s remember this. Let’s hang onto this for a bit of nostalgia nom nom later,’” Gadsby says. “No, it’s just memory soup in there, you just f*cking chuck it in the back. You know when you watch a film trailer and it’s very busy and at the end of it you have a lot of questions and absolutely no f*cking desire to watch that piece of shit. That’s how it works.”

The bit about movie trailers being “very busy” and yet, adding up to nothing—isn’t this a succinct summary of superhero-movie-fatigue? Doesn’t this describe every second true crime docu-series out there (and they’re multiplying like rabbits, these shows) on streaming networks today? There are political and economic entities that profit from your numbness and there are entertainment companies seeking to supply said numbness in perpetuity. What a coincidence, then, that these two groups of people tend to team up before one can say ‘mergers and acquisitions’. Something Special is very good at merging Big Ideas with innocuous stories in this subtle, under-the-radar way.

Gadsby wanted a palate cleanser with Something Special. And while this decision may have been as much for the artist’s sake as it is for ours, that’s exactly what the special delivers. Sometimes, it’s okay not to be the big event, especially when the small moments have so much love and vulnerability to offer.    


Aditya Mani Jha

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based independent writer and journalist. He’s currently working on his first book of non-fiction, a collection of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.


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