What to Watch Verdict
A strong start to Hacks, which takes a familiar set-up and finds something new with an impressive duo at the helm.
🎭Jean Smart leading a comedy
🎭Strong chemistry between Smart and Hannah Einbinder
🎭A smart introduction to a familiar world
🎭Everything feels very lived in
🎭Would like more time with supporting players like Kaitlin Olson
This post contains detailed spoilers for Hacks.
Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) is on top of the world in the Hacks opening sequence that takes its cue from the iconic Martin Scorsese tracking shot from Goodfellas and switches New York City's Copacabana nightclub for a Las Vegas performance hot spot. The camera follows her glorious sequinned back as she finishes a killer set and walks through the backstage corridors talking to stage managers, assistants and showgirls during this nightly routine. It isn’t until Deborah sits down that we finally glimpse the face of the legendary comedian. Seeing her image reflected in the vanity mirror depicts a star who is booked and busy but the visage that looks back doesn’t always tell the whole story.
In the first two episodes of the new HBO Max comedy from Broad City writers Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky, it is quickly established that Deborah is clinging to her stand-up residency in Las Vegas and she cannot stay number one forever.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the previously up-and-coming writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder), who inadvertently tanked her development deal because of a bad tweet. It is a classic case of pairing a reluctant duo who need each other to survive this cutthroat industry. While the set-up is as old as time, the dark comedy doesn’t resemble a routine that we have seen before.
Stand-up comedy is a fruitful source for recent TV shows from Prime Video’s Emmy-winning The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to the wonderful Feel Good on Netflix. The former is a period comedy charting the rise of a Joan Rivers-adjacent comedian whereas the latter from Canadian comedian Mae Martin explores love and addiction. Both of those shows portray a performer before they have hit the stratosphere, whereas Hacks is coming at this form of entertainment from two opposing angles.
Deborah’s extravagant lifestyle in Las Vegas is a result of 2,500 shows, which is a record-breaking number of dates in Sin City. Residencies are a big money-spinner, but there is a chance Deborah could lose her prime Friday and Saturday night slots as Palmetto casino owner Marty (Christopher McDonald) is looking to bring in a younger demographic. Meanwhile, Ava cannot get a job in Los Angeles and her manager Jimmy (co-creator Paul Downs) uses his prize client’s Vegas predicament to come up with a solution for Ava’s unemployable status. The disparate generations are resistant to working with each other — this could easily fall into tired trope status — but when they both push back against the other, the chemistry fueled by contempt is instant gold.
Age is not the only great divide between the two women, as they differ on everything from comedy style — Deborah loves a traditional punchline setup, whereas Ava is "unfiltered and honest" — to opinions on decor and clothing. Ava’s "chimney sweep" boots are to be taken off when she comes into Deborah’s palatial mansion and not because she has a no-shoes policy (she has a shoe-dependent mandate).
The second episode of Hacks dives further into the elder comedian’s obsession with antiques. Her acquisition of a pepper shaker is partly motivated by the desire to gain an upper hand. Information about her painful past is sprinkled throughout the first two episodes, with each new clue giving insight into her guarded nature. Her ex-husband’s death in the pilot is met with barely a raised eyebrow and the suggestion she should take the night off is met with a look that could kill.
The painful truth is revealed during Ava’s first war of words with her soon-to-be new boss when she makes a dig about Deborah’s husband leaving her for her sister. This is the same husband she starred in a sitcom with and burned down his house in a classic case of "hell hath no fury." The latter is part of the Deborah Vance myth and the scorned woman act is tired. Her material is dated, which is why Jimmy sent Ava to help freshen up her routine but the two women struggle to find common ground beyond their gender and profession.
Rather than leaning into the dull "are women funny?" debate, Hacks comes at this partnership via the different styles of humor. They speak the same language but are rarely on the same page. Simple errors include Ava referring to Deborah’s line of muumuus when it is actually a caftan collection — the glorious orange one in the first episode is making me long for a sun lounger.
Ava hasn’t done any research about her potential boss and she knows the bare gossip-fueled minimum. Deborah is uninterested in writing jokes that bare the soul as she has spent the last 30-plus years erecting a wall around her heart made up one-liners about men being bad in bed. They both use their whip-smart cracks to deflect but Ava confronts her pain (or an approximation of it) while still using her words as a shield. It is why they are so suited to each other and so quick to prod at each other’s weaknesses.
Their first meeting in Hacks is a disaster that is incredibly revealing about both women, which includes Deborah’s painful past and the terrible (and lazy) joke that led to Ava’s downfall. What follows is an impromptu brainstorming session (after Deborah has almost run Ava off the road) and this back-and-forth reveals an element of synchronicity. The job is secured and the second episode depicts an unconventional partnership that defies the usual mentor dynamic during a trip to an antique store.
Adding more texture and quirks, we find out that Deborah loves soda (but only from a fountain) and is a stickler for getting every single cent of her change. The latter is incongruous to Ava when her new boss is willing to drop thousands of dollars on an ornate pepper shaker that she is going to stick in a cabinet. But this desire to own beautiful tangible things is a reaction to her heartbreaking experience in the 1970s — like Ava, I hope she is donating to Planned Parenthood.
The generational gap doesn’t only reflect their comedic sensibilities but also the path to stardom and success. "You’re making it really hard," Ava tells her after the car gets a puncture in the middle of nowhere. The veteran comic scoffs at this complaint remarking, "You don’t know what hard is. You got plucked off the internet at what, 20? You just got lucky!" When Ava rebukes this suggestion and points out she is also talented, Deborah’s contempt cannot be contained:
"Good is the minimum. It’s the baseline. You have to be so much more than good. And even if you’re great and lucky you still have to work really fucking hard. And even that is not enough. You have to scratch and claw and it never fucking ends. And it doesn’t get better, it just gets harder. So don’t complain to me that I am making your life hard, you don’t even know what that means."
Her point is hilariously undercut by the helicopter that has come to rescue her from this predicament while Ava has to wait with the car in the heat. Two opposing things can be true at the same time and Deborah’s personal experience is a big factor and she is also super out of touch — and unaware of how much hard work it takes to get noticed even with an internet presence.
Both women are struggling in personal and professional matters, which does not lead to an immediate bond in Hacks. Ava’s "unfiltered and honest" stance includes regaling her manager about the Postmates guy she hooked up with and she tells Deborah about her ex. She doesn’t appear to have many friends (or any friends) and her most reciprocal relationship is with Jimmy.
Meanwhile, Deborah is surrounded by people during working hours but late at night it is just her and the two corgis she treats to gourmet meals. She searches her daughter DJ’s (Kaitlin Olson) bag for pharmaceuticals before she leaves her house and isn’t particularly empathetic that her father has just died. COO Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) is her closest confidant but even this is based on business and not actual friendship. She even regularly hires blackjack dealer Kiki (Poppy Liu) to come to her home rather than venture to the casino. And while she scrimps on every cent, she also gifts Kiki her old Rolls Royce when she gets an upgrade. She is a woman of extreme contradictions and her relationship with her staff is incredibly generous and withholding.
The supporting cast adds depth to this world and my one nitpick is I would like to see more from them. Jimmy's terrible assistant Kayla (Megan Stalter) hilariously pulls focus through her lack of being able to do her job effectively.
Perhaps the most revealing moment comes during the antique negotiation as Deborah refuses to apologize in order to get the item she desires — Jefferson Mays is excellent in the role of the dealer. This stubborn streak has helped Deborah get to where she is but no doubt it has also been detrimental. Proving her resilience and ability to work hard, Ava acquires this pepper shake in an act of desperation. As a reward, Deborah gives her a new assignment and it involves digitizing everything she has ever worked on. "It’s all material, honey" is the answer Deborah gives before Ava can complain about her new archival task (echoing Nora Ephron’s infamous "It’s all copy"). What lies within these boxes could be the key to cracking who the legendary comic is and while it looks like a nightmare job, I for one am excited about what Ava will discover.
The first two episodes of Hacks are sharp and pointed in their observations about show business and the relationship between women in a world dominated by men. Jean Smart got her big sitcom break in the 1980s on Designing Women and some of the framed images (such as the red suit shot with Jay Leno) are not photoshopped. In the last few years, she has become a prestige TV staple and scene-stealer in shows including Fargo, Watchmen and Mare of Easttown — it is about time she was the headline act. Relative acting newcomer Hannah Einbinder is an excellent foil, and the first double-bill is incredibly effective in setting up a familiar yet fresh dynamic. A thrilling start that makes this new series a strong bet.
Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.