The following article contains spoilers for the first season of ‘Hacks.’
Lights up on a scene from the first season finale of HBO Max’s Hacks: Jean Smart’s aging comedian, Deborah Vance, is choosing between two pairs of shoes. She asks her enterprise’s chief operating officer Marcus whether she should wear the lower heel, “which I know I can walk in, or do I go with the fabulous stilettos?” He advises the lower heel because “the pain’s not worth it.” She’ll be walking the stage of the Palmetto Theatre for her 2500th, and final, stand–up comedy show.
The two pairs are clearly symbolic of the choice looming large in Deborah’s mind: Will she tell the same tried and true jokes, or will she perform the all–new, hour–long soul–bearing, risk–taking set she has been workshopping with her new co–writer? Real–life comedian Hannah Einbinder plays Ava, Deborah’s newest co–writer who embodies just about every trope of a privileged millennial. Ava was fired from her previous writing gig after being canceled over Twitter. We don’t actually get to hear the set, but we don’t need to. Smart’s choice of outfit, a gold sequined pantsuit and those fabulous stilettos, makes her decision clear.
Hacks’ credo is to do the unexpected or risky when it comes to plot and character, even though the show could be anchored by the strength of its lead performances alone. The season’s arc shapes up initially as “Zoomer vs Boomer,” but the show’s conflict is actually between experience and naïveté. Not unlike Mad Men, dramatic tension between Ava and Deborah is just as primed to dissipate as it is to boil over. The writers of Hacks know how to set up the dominoes for nail–biting conflict like they’re setting up a joke. When they choose to knock them down, the result can feel like an emotional gut punch.
In one harrowing sequence, Ava finds out a man with whom she had spent the previous night in Vegas jumped from his penthouse window and killed himself. Suddenly his declarations of “sometimes the universe gives you a path, and you say ‘I’m gonna fucking jump’ and the net will appear” are rendered hollow. He told Ava exactly what she wanted to hear, but an easy out doesn’t hold up in the cold light of day. The next episode, Ava tries to delete a voicemail message quitting her job. She’s able to do so without Deborah ever finding out, because the narrative doesn’t need this conflict. Ava has already learned the lesson she needed to.
For a show about stand–up comedy, this plot point may appear bleak. Hacks boasts a remarkable number of storylines that contain darker thematic tones, including Ava’s father’s stroke, or Deborah's brush with becoming television’s first female late–night host until she burned down her ex–husband’s house. Except it’s revealed that Deborah never committed arson, and the real tragedy is that she was practically forced to make this rumor a cornerstone of her comedy sets, to embrace the persona of the “crazy ex–wife.”
There are plenty of jokes worked into the fabric of Hacks, but the show’s writers never "pause for effect." If anything, these writers’ sense of humor has more in common with what Deborah describes as Ava’s “thought poems,” as in “They’re not jokes, they’re like thought poems – I had a horrible nightmare that I got a voicemail.” Ava counters that “the traditional joke structure is very male.” Both of these women contend with the male–dominated comedy world’s idea of a joke; there’s a heartbreaking scene where Deborah’s photo–op at a chain restaurant features her burning a pizza. But Hacks’ sense of humor eschews toxic masculinity in the same way it eschews “cheap laughs.”
The portrayal of these women is unquestionably feminist, but also contains nuance. This is not Ava’s girlboss triumph over the “high bitch” Deborah. That’s the narrative of Ava’s interview with two showrunners, pitching “a well–observed character study ... of a shitty woman.” The show doesn’t side with either main character and there are times when neither of them is likeable. Ava and Deborah are two comedians whose confidence can come off as arrogance, with the former believing that different is always better and the latter longing for monotonous stability. But Hacks doesn’t condemn Ava’s problematic tweets, nor does it punish Deborah for her QVC endorsements or plastic surgery.
“1.69 Million” comes off slightly more ham–fisted than other episodes in topic, but the feelings it elicits are still impressively complex; torn between tragic and triumphant. Ava shuns Deborah for neglecting to protect other female comics from harassment as an up–and–comer herself. Deborah replies “just by getting up on that stage I gave other women more than I ever had. Forget the ladder, I built a marble fucking staircase.” But it’s clear that Ava’s words affected Deborah, and during her set she pays a sleazy male emcee the titular sum, in exchange that he never sets foot in a comedy club again. It’s a small–scale victory; as Deborah puts it, “I can’t get rid of them all, but I can get rid of one.”
And if there’s only one reason to watch Hacks, it’s Smart’s staggering performance as Deborah. If you didn’t get the memo, we’re currently living in the midst of the Jean Smart renaissance. In just the past two years, she’s played Helen on Mare of Easttown and Agent Laurie Blake on Watchmen. Deborah contains echoes of all of these women; in her grace and poise which can turn gritty and crass on a dime, in her tough determination, forged not by choice but by necessity, and in her quiet dignity and even quieter cracks of vulnerability. Smart has an intangible quality that makes you lean in closely to hear what she has to say.
In most generational conflicts, the youth emerge victorious. This is not the case on Hacks, because as Ava learns more about her new employer, her respect for Deborah only deepens. Smart was never a stand–up comedian, but I’m confident she had plenty of war stories of her own to draw on when creating this character. Many people still know Smart as Charlene Frazier from Designing Women. In the Hacks universe, it’s likely that many will still know Deborah as the comic who burned down her ex’s house. But Smart has changed her narrative, and she has stepped into the spotlight as one of today’s most talented performers. And based on how the second season of Hacks shakes out, history may be kind to Deborah Vance after all.