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'Hacks' 1.03-1.04 Review: Back to the Beginning

Ava strikes late-night gold in Deborah's archive in 'Hacks.'

Hacks Season 1
(Image: © HBO Max)

Our Verdict

As we learn more about Deborah and Ava the jokes get funnier (and darker), and both episodes raise the emotional bar in unexpected and revealing ways.

For

  • ▪️Deborah's unaired late-night pilot and the Time magazine cover.
  • ▪️Strong pop culture references.
  • ▪️Revealing more about both Deborah and Ava's families.
  • ▪️Kaitlin Olson is a gift.
  • ▪️The art department and the team that produces the vintage Deborah clips.

Against

  • ▪️Ava self-absorption is an intended flaw but can also grate.
  • ▪️Further insight into Marcus would be beneficial.

This post contains detailed spoilers for Hacks.  
Check out our
last review here.

Television is awash with late-night talk shows, but no woman has held the illustrious main host position on either The Tonight Show or The Late Show. Joan Rivers was the permanent guest host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, but when rumors suggested Carson was going to retire, a list of 10 potentials was leaked and Rivers (nor any other woman) was not mentioned. This caused a bitter rift between the two with Rivers launching her own rival show on the then-new Fox in 1986, which only ran for two seasons. Comedy is a tough industry to break into and one that presents multiple barriers to women — standup is still viewed as somewhat of a boys' club. Deborah Vance is a comedian with a strong Joan Rivers foundation including her tough exterior, acerbic wit, and self-deprecating jokes. 

The similarities in Hacks expand to include a late-night dream that never came to fruition, and the final scene of this episode is far more revealing than any conversation Deborah has already shared with Ava (Hannah Einbinder). This is followed by an episode exploring the difficult relationship between Deborah and her daughter DJ (Kaitlin Olson), which also begins to crack open who Ava is. She might consider herself an open book, but Ava is similar to her boss in the matters she keeps close to her chest. 

The reason why the Las Vegas resident said yes to Jimmy’s (Paul Downs) proposal about hiring a writer wasn’t that she saw promise in the suggestion, but because she will do everything in her power to remain on top. She is the queen of an impressive empire and Marty (Christopher McDonald) threatened to take this away by reducing her performance dates. Ava might sneer at some of the gigs she works, but her lavish lifestyle is paid by opening chain pizza restaurants and selling collections on QVC. When she told Ava that she has clawed her way to the top, she wasn’t being facetious, even if the news helicopter pick-up was a flex that undermines her remarks. Nevertheless, Deborah is still desperately hanging on to her position as the de facto Vegas comic and her actions in “D’Jewelry” are motivated by her quest to retain what she has earned.

Everything in Hacks that has led to where she is now is kept in the basement that Ava has been tasked with archiving. Sorting through 40-plus years of material in some now-defunct formats sounds like a punishment, but by the end of the third episode, Ava has struck gold with a tape from 1976. A package that arrived from Deborah’s estranged sister prompted this specific search and after the item was tossed without being opened, the young writer saved it from the kitchen garbage. Ava was prompted in part by happenstance because she was drying her hair with a paper towel after lying on the overworked sprinkler system. Her new boss is still finding it hard to tolerate her presence, although Ava’s comments about Deborah’s brand of comedy (including the repeat gags about setting fire to her cheating husband’s house) could do with some finessing. Ava is, of course, leaning into her unfiltered persona, although this leaves her wide open for the roast she is the subject of on an open-top sightseeing bus.

In Hacks' first episode, Deborah argues that there is no line in comedy after Ava reveals her personal “cancellation” woes, but the joke has to be funny. Watching the generation gap musings Deborah makes on an open-top bus aimed solely at Ava is uncomfortable in how she picks at her appearance and the lack of response to the nude photo she sent to her ex-girlfriend. This is the first time we have seen the older comedian be outwardly cruel, and it is in reaction to the perceived disrespect that Ava leveled at her earlier. Hacks would get tired very quickly if it was barb after barb, thankfully, this is more nuanced than a simple case of old versus young. “You think you know everybody better than they know themselves,” her ex Ruby (Lorenza Izzo) tells Ava when she finally speaks to her. The “miss you” comment was not an invitation to send the topless shot and she is back with her ex. Ava’s lack of close relationships beyond her manager Jimmy (and even that is transactional) is comparable to Deborah’s and they both struggle with family.

Hacks Season 1

(Image credit: HBO Max)

During her conversation with Ruby, it is her reaction to the question about her father that proves to be the most telling. “Alive” is her description of how he is and the following episode includes a prickly conversation with her mother while her dad sleeps. The assumption is that he is sick and Ava remarked last week's Hacks episode that she sends her parents money. It isn’t until Hacks 1.04 that she rings to tell her mom that she is currently living in Vegas (she clearly doesn’t follow her daughter on Instagram) and this is a heated discussion about the instability of her chosen profession. The terse dynamic is similar to Deborah and her 40-something daughter DJ, and the happy family portrait depicted in the unseen Late Night with Deborah Vance pilot is far from the present-day reality.

The truth behind the pap shots that capture Deborah looking her least glamorous is two-fold. DJ is the one who tips off the photographers, but Deborah purposefully dresses down in order to help her daughter’s money-making scheme. For a woman who is so meticulous about her camera-ready looks, this is a huge sacrifice but it also calls into question why she cannot support DJ’s other endeavors. The one she is being touted this week is her jewelry line and DJ thinks this could be ideal for QVC. Her mother disagrees and doesn’t even try to taint her brand with these “substantial” looking pieces. It is a tough blow but Deborah won’t let her dilute her curated brand and for her to seem like she is self-sufficient, her mother resorts to public photograph shame.

Hacks Season 1

(Image credit: HBO Max)

Spending time with DJ is a thrill for Ava as she is trying to piss off her boss, but is also a thrill for us watching Kaitlin Olson getting more time to shine as the difficult daughter. This character could easily be written off as a spoiled brat but she has also grown up in a fractured family with a mother whose heartbreak infected every corner of the palatial mansion. DJ veers from brash to lacking self-confidence and is in awe when Ava bullshits her way through a conversation with a Neiman Marcus buyer at the jewelry expo — the reference to Busy Philipps’ Instagram Stories is the kind of observational humor that makes this show sing. This is all while Deborah is trying to buy her dates back with a limited edition Birkin for Marty’s daughter’s Bat Mitzvah (before she has to stoop to gathering blackmail material). DJ tells Ava all about her mother’s 40-year long feud with her sister and that she did her first line of coke when she was 13. Referring to herself as a “work in progress,” her animosity toward her mom runs deep. Recovery to DJ means no powder or pills (downing cocktails is fine) and her messy relationship with her parents is reflected in everything she does. Considering how much animosity Ava has toward her boss, it wouldn’t be a surprise if she let what she learned slide. Instead, her inability to keep her mouth shut extends to telling Deborah a truth she already knows.

It is a learning curve for Ava and each of these two episodes ends on a poignant moment that strikes at the heart of why Hacks is more than just pitting the old versus the young. After the fraught conversation with her own mother, Ava receives a call from Deborah to check what she believes is an overordering error on the room service bill (it is not). The usual verbal sparring begins but when Deborah recognizes the Law & Order music in the background (she guesses it is SVU but it is the underappreciated Criminal Intent) she changes her channel for this communal viewing experience. What follows is a split-screen closer that is usually reserved for romantic couples who are in bed (but in different locations) that began with the Production Code defying Indiscreet starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman before When Harry Met Sally echoed this set-up (later to be mimicked by Dan and Blair in Gossip Girl). This is not romantic love but the intimacy and ease of this scene reveal that these two women are capable of intimacy even if they struggle with their own families. Even Marcus is getting frustrated with his long-time boss, although he is of service to the Vance empire and the fans referred to as “Little Debbies” (including the wonderful Guy Branum cameoing in Episode 3). It is clear Marcus is a big part of Deborah’s success in how he manages her opportunities and the star, but hopefully, we will get more insight into who he is in the forthcoming episodes.  

Returning to the package that Deborah’s estranged sister sent is a 1976 issue of Time that references the Lily Tomlin “New Queen of Comedy” illustrated design from 1977. Instead of a top hat, Deborah wears a crown with a similar coverline to Tomlin’s: “TV’s It Girl - Will Deborah Vance Make History?” First of all, shout out to the art department who created this beautiful issue of Time and the team that put together the seamless vintage Deborah clips. This Time headline is a nod to the late-night gig that would never air and Ava is shocked by this discovery. Her lack of research gifts us with the most emotional moment of the series so far when Deborah watches silently from the shadowy stairs while Ava laughs her head off at the on-fire comedian. When Deborah shows a rare emotional reaction on-screen about this opportunity being the “honor of my life” it is impossible to not get teary with her. Everything about this sequence indicates why Deborah is so unwilling to give up the second empire and it is safe to say the Little Debbies have got a new member among their ranks.