Hacks is HBO Max’s breakout comedy that follows Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), an aging comedy legend with a Vegas residency and all the money in the world that is by circumstance forced to work with a young comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder), who has been pseudo-black-listed in the writing world for problematic tweets. Ava is hired to help Deborah refresh the material that she has been doing for decades.
Deborah and Ava have virtually nothing in common outside of both being comics. There’s an obvious generational gap ripe for jokes and back-and-forths about boomers and Millenials and the fact that Deborah is ridiculously wealthy with different sensibilities than her 25-year-old employee. The pair share a love of comedy and all the intricacies that create great jokes that provides some common ground.
Jean Smart is HBO’s Most Valuable Player from her work as Laurie Blake in Watchmen, followed by playing Kate Winslet’s mother in Mare of Eastown, and now Hacks, where all her talents are on full display. Deborah Vance carries herself with the opulence of a legend and has the wry humor and taste of someone you would expect to be jaded and wealthy from her time in the entertainment industry. She has been performing the same material for decades and is not so much, comfortable with her status as much as she has accepted what her life has become.
All she has is her residency, which is in jeopardy, and her product hawking appearances where she racks up cash promoting pizza chains, restaurants, and jewelry on QVC.
Hacks approaches stand-up comedy as an extension of the performer’s life, showing the vulnerability that occurs when comedians are up on stage. Deborah has made her living and her legend-making self-deprecating jokes for decades for a reason. Deborah returns home after her show, takes off her wig and whatever extravagant outfit she wore, and sits alone and eats dinner. Performing is all she has, really, and her success comes from how she took what the world perceived her as and made it her crutch—dropping someone like Ava into her life challenges both character’s self-perception and relationship with comedy in interesting ways.
Ava, played by Hannah Einbinder, desperately needs a writing job and begrudgingly moves to Vegas to work for Deborah Vance. Ava was essentially canceled for some “insensitive tweets,” and she can’t find any writer’s rooms to take her in. Ava is a chronic over-sharer who just says everything that pops into her brain, no matter how inappropriate it is. She is self-obsessed but a moral person outside of her ambitious nature. Ava needs this job, and Deborah needs to freshen up her act to stave off her residency being vacated.
The back and forth jabs Ava and Deborah exchange to try and combat each other's oversized ego are some of the show’s funniest moments, but they also draw the characters closer together. It’s like through the insults and their differences in opinion about comedy, they (surprise!) find common ground. Deborah and Ava are both female comics that operate in a famously male-dominated space. They are from different eras, but they face the same issues and struggles despite Deborah’s stature as a legend and Ava coming up in a more progressive era.
Hacks address issues like sexism and the plight of women in a male-dominated industry like comedy, where macho sensibilities reign supreme and women have to play along to get along. Deborah is a living example of someone who made it through that world but not unscathed from everything she went through. The conflict between Ava and Deborah is one of performing the truth or settling with the way things have always been.
Everything on the peripherals of Deborah and Ava’s relationship is great. Deborah’s manager Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), is for all intents the show’s third lead. He has this in charge, monotone delivery that shines when he comes into contact with Ava’s fish-out-of-water awkwardness. He helped build Deborah’s empire and put his life on hold, putting all his time and passion into his work and neglecting to live his own life in the process. Deborah’s daughter, played by the hilarious Kaitlin Olson, is the typical child of a mega-famous person with substance abuse problems and the entitlement that comes with it. Deborah and Ava share the same agent, Jimmy (Paul W. Downs), whose assistant Kayla (Megan Stalter) is constantly overstepping boundaries and causing havoc but is unfireable because she is his boss’s daughter, basically making her his superior.
Las Vegas, specifically the Palmetto Casino where Ava stays, creates a unique playground for the show. Ava lives in the same hotel room for months ordering chicken parmesan every night. She writes at the slot machines next to elderly regulars, grows accustomed to the constant haze of cigarette smoke, and learns every secret entrance in the hotel. Las Vegas just seems like it’s so separate from the world, especially with how the show juxtaposes it versus Los Angeles. With the number of characters the show introduces, there could be a spin-off show solely about the crazy mayor played by Lauren Weedman or all the goings-on at the Palmetto.
Hacks gets off to a strong start and is instantly something that you will want more of it immediately after the first episode is over. The show hits a point where it goes from good to great — then it elevates one more time into the best thing on TV currently. A show that begins as a show about an odd couple trying to craft perfect jokes, and the work that goes into comedy becomes something much more.
Hacks first season is incredible, and hilarious led by a force of nature performance from Jean Smart. It’s accessible, episodes are around half an hour, and insanely binge-able now that the entire series is available to stream. Hacks is a show that could go for six seasons and not miss a beat, and we would be lucky if that’s the case.
Hacks is available to stream on HBO Max.
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