Film & Television

‘Hacks’: The Good, The Bad, and The Very Funny

If you’re a fan of Jean Smart (and this year, there are more reasons than ever to be), I have good news and bad news. First, the bad news: her wonderfully funny HBO series Hacks just ended after only 10 half-hour episodes. I already miss it.

The good news, however, is that it’s been picked up for a second season.

Smart, who will turn 70 this September, decided to pursue acting at a young age, earning her BFA from the University of Washington, and launching a stage career with the Oregon Shakespeare Company. Work with other respected regional theaters followed, and she received an Off-Broadway Drama Desk nomination in 1980 and a Los Angeles Drama Critics Award in 1983, both for her role in the acclaimed drama Last Summer at Bluefish Cove. She made her Broadway debut in the early 80s, playing Marlene Dietrich in Piaf. From there, she went on to a series of sitcom parts before landing the one that made her a familiar face (and television star): Charlene in Designing Women. Although the ditzy blonde character was beloved by audiences, Smart left the series after five years (it went on without her for two more) to pursue a broader range of roles. 

Her strategy seemed to succeed, and she took on challenging television movie appearances, ranging from serial killer Aileen Wuornos to young Jody’s mother in The Yearling. She won two Emmy Awards for a recurring role as an old high school flame in Frasier, and one for the comedy series Samantha Who? (and was nominated an additional four times for other work). She also earned a Tony nomination for the 2000 revival of The Man Who Came to Dinner.

In an industry that often forgets (or neglects) women as they age, Smart has worked consistently in diverse and rewarding parts. She’s quoted as saying, “I think that people get to a certain point in their life, and they think that nothing can change . . . .  Personally, I think life offers us the opportunity to take chances and make changes all the time.”

This year, we’ve had the pleasure of watching Smart take multiple chances with pay cable/streaming provider HBO (and, if I were a betting woman, I’d wager that at least one — if not more — will earn her new Emmy nods). In the acclaimed drama series Mare of Easttown, Smart plays Kate Winslet’s video-game-loving mother. In Watchmen, she portrays an FBI agent who is equally enamored of a different pleasurable pastime (one that comes with batteries).

My favorite role, however, has to be superstar standup comic — who may or may not be all washed up — Deborah Vance in Hacks

Hacks is an odd-couple seriocomedy that matches Smart’s Deborah, an established star with a sprawling mansion, long-time Vegas residency, apparel line on QVC, and lucrative endorsement deals, with Ava, an edgy twenty-something Hollywood writer who lost her most recent gig due to an ill-advised Tweet. At first it seems that Deborah and Ava have nothing in common — except their beleaguered manager, who decides that pairing them up will solve two of his problems: Deborah’s potentially waning popularity and Ava’s current pariah status.

Naturally, it’s hate at first sight.

Grudgingly meeting at the aforementioned mansion, the two women hurl insults until Ava calls Deborah’s home a “Cheesecake Factory,” and Deborah snaps back that (for Ava) working there “would be a better fit.” Without missing a beat (the two rarely do miss a beat), Ana declares, “I’d rather sling Bang-Bang Chicken and Shrimp all day than work here!” She’s hired.

As the two begin to work together, they lock horns often, but come to terms with their own demons as well as each other. Meanwhile, we’re treated to funny bits and pieces of Deborah’s show, archival footage of her early career (a blend of CG magic with a helping of Joan Rivers meets Mrs. Maisel), and the show biz absurdities of both Vegas and L.A. 

Smart is as marvelous as always, and appears to be having the time of her life, but Hacks’ real surprise is how relative newcomer Hannah Einbinder matches her scene for scene. As Ava, Einbinder demonstrates how frustrating it can be to know you’re the smartest (or funniest) woman in the room, but to be hampered by youth and inexperience. Initially disdainful of Deborah’s talent-turned-corporation, she soon realizes just how courageous Deborah was to break into the all-male bastion of standup comedy, and to deal with a fickle public and the predatorial media ever since. Ava is at times more confident than she should be and at other times hilariously self-deprecating. One of the show’s most delightful shifts is when Ava, who has taken the time to (after being forced to) review Deborah’s massive library of videotaped appearances, starts defending the older woman. Although I chose not to lead with it, because Einbinder’s work is absolutely up to snuff all on its own, I was both surprised (and not so much) to learn that she’s the daughter of SNL’s Laraine Newman.  

Smart and Einbinder are supported by a colorful and engaging cast of characters. Christopher McDonald (Thelma & Louise and literally hundreds of other credits) plays sleazeball Marty, the owner of Vegas’s fictitious Palmetto, the resort that is planning to replace Deborah’s weekend gigs with the a capella group Pentatonix. He and Deborah have a hate-love relationship, often heavy on the hate. Carl Clemons-Hopkins is Marcus, Deborah’s assistant, who is gay and Black, devoted to his work and deeply jealous of Ava’s sudden involvement. Kaitlin Olson (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) plays Deborah’s daughter DJ, a jewelry designer and recovered addict who both resents and relies on her mom’s support. And, Paul W. Downs is Jimmy, the women’s hapless agent who is bullied and pursued by his assistant Kayla (comedian Megan Stalter) who happens to be his boss’s daughter. 

The series was created by Downs, along with Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky. Together the team has worked before on Broad City; other shared credits among them include Amy Poehler’s Parks and Recreation, Rough Night, and Time Traveling Bong. Their writing here is tight and well timed, whether an episode calls for comedy, drama, or both.

Hacks is built on a distinctly feminist platform. Deborah, as wildly successful as she is (her face appears thirty feet high over the Las Vegas strip; her designer caftans regularly sell out; she makes $100,000 to open a pizza place; and is swarmed by adoring fans, one of whom begs her to autograph his bald head) has paid dearly for her fame and fortune. And, as confident and sarcastic as she appears to be, Ava is just beginning to understand — and appreciate — the struggles of women entertainers who came before her.

Hacks is smart and funny. It’s often silly but has meaningful undertones. Best of all, it’s a chance to watch an accomplished pro paired up with a promising newcomer. Neither of whom should ever be referred to as a hack.

Season one of Hacks is available to stream on HBO Max.


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