Hacks – Season 1


It’s funny because it’s true

Main Cast: Jean Smart, Hannah Einbinder

Creators: Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky

I adore Jean Smart. I didn’t always. I mean, I liked her fine from her days on Designing Women. But it was the more mature Jean Smart of the second season of Fargo that worked her way into my whole heart. It is that Jean Smart that makes the HBO sitcom Hacks a shining jewel in the network’s already glittering crown.

Hacks stars Smart as Deborah Vance, a legendary stand-up comedian with a long-running show at a major Los Vegas casino. She has headlined this theater for decades, bringing in crowds and laughs.

Times change, but business doesn’t. And business is saying it’s time to make way for something new (read: someone younger). Deborah lets her agent (Paul W. Downs) know what she thinks of losing some of her prime dates and the game is afoot.

The agent sends over Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a young comedy writer who has burned her professional bridges with an offensive tweet. It is Ava’s job to help Deborah freshen up her material. They both despise the entire arrangement. The series follows the women as they try to save Deborah’s show and not kill each other.

Hacks should be a completely predictable mess of misogyny and bad comedy. The premise of two smart women who can’t behave like human beings because they are too emotional should feel wrong on every level. But it doesn’t.  A Las Vegas show in which a woman can only get laughs by insulting herself should feel degrading. But it doesn’t.  A young woman so arrogant that she fails to recognize the significance of her predecessors should be detestable. Well, she actually is, but that’s intentional.

What makes Hacks brilliant is that we see everything that’s wrong with this scenario. And then we learn how it all came to be. Nobody becomes who they are in a bubble. The influences on both Deborah and Ava become apparent as they struggle through their differences.

As the two women butt heads we learn how damaging the world of comedy was for Deborah and how insulating it is for Ava. Their generational divide is so vast that they aren’t even speaking the same language.

What makes the show work are the whip smart scripts combined with the incredible performance of Jean Smart. Deborah is rich and mean and vindictive and vulnerable and very, very funny. Smart gives her layers upon layers, usually unflinching in their portrait of a woman too stubborn to be beaten by a system designed to crush her.

Ava is not as interesting as Deborah, but Einbinder makes her spectacularly self-centered and clueless. It is the deliberate expansion of her world view that allows us into Deborah’s reality as well as her memories. There are definitely times when we hate them both, but they’re fleeting.

The supporting cast is excellent, from Kaitlin Olsen as Deborah’s damaged daughter to Christopher McDonald as the slimy but somehow not entirely vile owner of the casino. Particularly good is Carl Clemens-Hopkins who plays Marcus, Deborah’s assistant who resents her growing relationship with Ava.

Hacks is also funny. Very funny. Acerbically, bitingly funny. The repartee is fast-paced and often has an uncomfortable edge that is excellently dulled by the more refined moments of situational humor. This is not a show, in any way, shape or form, for children.

It would be a crime not to mention costume designer Katherine Felix-Hager. Deborah’s wardrobe is phenomenal. Caftans and stilettos and enough sequins to bedazzle a small country. The outfits are horribly, wonderfully juxtaposed with Ava’s casual to the point of sloppy rumpled shirts and heavy boots. The characters look exactly as different as they are.

I loved the first season of Hacks and it has been renewed for a second. If you don’t have HBO and see a free trial, snap it up for this show alone.

Jean Smart photos courtesy of HBO Max, Hannah Einbinder photo by Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max

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