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Hannah Gadsby Teaches Us To See In 'Douglas'

By Dan Hamamura | TV | June 23, 2020 |

By Dan Hamamura | TV | June 23, 2020 |


At the beginning of her second Netflix special, Douglas, Hannah Gadsby discusses her newfound success in America, which makes her wonder: If people are fans solely because of her previous special, Nanette, what exactly are they expecting from her? It’s a fitting question, given that her breakthrough piece, which examined her personal trauma, was dark and at times, incredibly uncomfortable to experience.

So, to make sure people understand what they’re getting themselves into, Gadsby offers to start off by providing a roadmap to the show, going so far to include (as an apparent nod toward the subject of the special) a helpful tip that, at one point, she will reveal that she has autism. But while roadmap is detailed and accurate, it’s also a distraction, expertly designed to keep the audience from understanding the true nature of what’s about to happen.

Once the show “officially” begins (15 minutes in!), Gadsby loops through material as varied as an awkward conversation at the dog park, to the casual everyday misogyny of the world, to an examination of topics about which she’s openly unreasonable (capped off by a brilliant, foreshadow-y run about everything wrong with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).

As she weaves her way through the set, much of it feels simultaneously connected (due to the roadmap) and disjointed (due to the shifts in topic). But it finally builds to Gadsby’s pre-spoiled reveal that she has autism — a moment that, in the hands of a different performer, would have served as the climax of the show, and provided the audience with a crescendo of emotion and a sudden sense of relief as the previous stories and jokes would suddenly make sense: of course, Gadsby is autistic, this explains everything!

Except that isn’t what happens, because she already told us she was autistic. And the reveal isn’t a reveal because that was never the point of the show.

As Gadsby moves on, she begins to make sense of her life through this new understanding — the strange moments that never made sense to her that suddenly do, the misconceptions that people have about what it means for her to have autism. And then, finally, she lets us in on what the show really is about: not the fact that Gadsby has autism, but that the special is a way for her to share how she thinks and sees the world around her. And that’s when it clicks in.

Because with a grand flourish, Gadsby whips her way through a symphony of callbacks, projecting a series of Western art pieces and matching them to jokes she’s made throughout the special. But as she does so, Gadsby consistently highlights something just out of view, something that most of us likely would never notice. Yet when she points it out, Gadsby’s pairings of joke with art hit that perfect harmony of being surprising, yet inevitable.

Were the jokes inspired by the paintings? Or did she simply find art that fit her punchlines? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because putting the two together gives us the opportunity, for just a moment, to see the world the way that Hannah Gadsby does, and it’s strange and specific and beautiful.

It may seem natural to attempt to compare Douglas to Nanette; after all, Nanette broke through the noise and stood out amongst countless other comedy specials with its searing, brutal honesty. That her new special doesn’t seem to have had the same cultural impact since its release at the end of May should not be taken as an indictment of the material, as Douglas nonetheless is powerful and brilliant and funny on its own (all without the benefit of surprise) and serves as another excellent showcase for Gadsby’s talents. She may have been right to wonder what audiences who only knew her from Nanette would expect, but now, after Douglas, the answer with Gadsby’s future work will be simple: we can expect whatever she brings us next will make us think, make us laugh, and make us want more.

Header Image Source: Netflix