There’s been a bevy of female-forward television programs as of late (Betty, Mare of Easttown, The Handmaid’s Tale, Derry Girls, The Morning Show, etc.) and the majority of these shows’ intentions are, to varying degrees of subtlety, to prove that storytelling is changing. Some of these programs are exclusively combatting the patriarchy, but in the case of Derry Girls, there’s a subliminal messaging system rewiring the brains of the viewers to accept the comedy because it’s funny, and not because it matters who’s delivering it (even though the word “girls” is in the frickin’ title - how cool is that?). So, when HBO Max announced its 2021 series, Hacks, starring TV’s It Girl Jean Smart and up-and-comer Hannah Einbinder, they had me at Ha.
In Hacks, as opposed to Derry Girls, it’s extremely important to acknowledge who’s delivering the comedy: in fact, it’s the entire point of the program. Jean Smart stars as Deborah Vance, an aging, yet successful, comic who is being forced out of her Vegas residency due to her waning relevance in the world of Vegas tourism. Her manager, Jimmy (Paul W. Downs from Broad City fame, and also co-creator of Hacks), instructs her to take on a younger comedian as a co-writer to pep up her sets and to help bring her into the millennial stratosphere. That’s where Ava (Hannah Einbinder, daughter of SNL’s Laraine Newman and actor Chad Einbinder) comes in. Ava has just lost her staff writing gig after posting a politically-charged joke on Twitter and was subsequently “canceled.” Deborah doesn’t want a writing partner, Ava doesn’t want to write for an aging “hack”: how’s that for a meet-cute?
There are several tactical moves made by Hacks’ writing team, with the number one being that they don’t focus too much on the actual stand-up. There’s almost nothing worse in television comedies than watching a show about stand-up comedy when the stand-up isn’t funny. Seinfeld knew it, Crashing knew it, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel doesn’t seem to know it yet...but maybe it’ll get there. These shows tend to isolate the stand-up scenarios to a minimal degree and instead focus on the dynamics “behind the scenes.” Not to say that Deborah and Ava aren’t funny, they certainly are, but the Hacks team knows it’s not meant to be a comedy special. Their comedy lies in the special place between reality and absurdity.
Jean Smart’s star has been rising (again) over the past six years, ever since being cast in FX’s Fargo season 2. She’s graced the screen in some of television’s finest series in recent history, starring in Legion, Watchmen, Mare of Easttown, and now, Hacks. USA Today has even gone so far as to name Smart the “Queen of HBO.” And they wouldn’t be wrong. (To hear Smart discuss her recent work in tandem with Bowen Yang’s SNL tenure, check out Variety’s ‘Actors on Actors’ interview.) She’s successfully managed to carve out a new path for her career in her late 60’s which has made her the perfect candidate to portray Deborah Vance, a woman who is just beginning to embrace a rebirth herself. Sadly, that isn’t the only similarity between Smart and Vance, as both actor and character have just recently lost their husbands (Smart losing her husband, Richard Gilliland, and Vance losing her original comedy partner and ex-husband, Frank). Vance, modeled in part after the late Joan Rivers, is a compelling character study of aging in today’s comedy climate, and with the help of the talented writing staff, Smart carries the character with grace and panache.
Hannah Einbinder is also a joy to watch. It’s rare that such a seasoned actor is paired with an unknown like Einbinder (at least, unknown to me), and the series manages to capture their unease with each other as if they were filming a documentary. When thinking back on my favorite moments from the first season (before the last episode aired on June 10, HBO renewed the series for a second season), I’m always drawn to the subtle brilliance of Smart, but when I think of the moments that truly made me laugh, I’m reminded of Einbinder’s sly delivery and sardonic cadence. (Einbinder made her Late Show debut right before the lockdown in early 2020, and it is a breath of fresh comedic air.) There’s an honesty to Ava in that she says what she means, even knowing that this is exactly what got her into this current pickle to begin with, which encourages the viewer to root for her. Watching the series, you’re compelled to root for both women even though they have diametrically different goals in mind. And when you can’t imagine one without the other, well, that’s the sign of a great comedic partnership.
I’d be remiss to not acknowledge the remaining key players in Hacks, as without them we would be left with just a “couple of divas.” As mentioned before, it’s always a treat to watch Paul W. Downs as Jimmy, and he’s paired with another fresh face in his assistant, Kayla, manically portrayed by Megan Stalter. We have Christopher McDonald acting as Marty Ghilain, the Vegas casino owner, and sexual foil, who is attempting to discontinue Vance’s residency. Carl Clemons-Hopkins plays Marcus, Vance’s studious COO and Poppy Liu plays Kiki, Vance’s personal blackjack dealer and gal-pal who receives Vance’s hand-me-down vehicles and wardrobe. But, best of all, Kaitlin Olsen plays Vance’s daughter, Deborah “DJ” Vance Jr., who brings light to every single scene she’s in.
Hacks is a show you don’t want to miss. Not only is it quietly hilarious and dramatically poetic, but it’s a window into the radical change the comedy world is currently experiencing. In Apple TV’s The Morning Show, Jennifer Aniston’s Alex Levy faces a personal reckoning to atone for her sins of omission and in Hacks, Deborah Vance is facing a similar reckoning; she’s both questioned by Ava for her complacency in the comedy biosphere and she questions her own place in this changing comedic landscape. The entire entertainment community is undergoing this same reckoning, and this is best represented in episode 8, my personal favorite, “1.69 Million.” Similar to Crashing’s season 3, fourth episode (“MC, Middle, Headliner”), Hacks laser-focused on the slow and steady uphill battle to eradicate the toxic masculinity within the comedy world. And it’s not about female comics adapting to be just “one of the boys,” it’s all about embracing the unique perspective women can offer the world; so, if you already have it and love it, you just need more in your life, or if you're ready to be educated, tune into HBO’s Hacks. It’s the smart choice.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.