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The following article was created by our marketing department in collaboration with our partners at Universal Studio Group.
Creative collaborations can be a tricky thing, especially when you’re dealing with two dominant personalities who are convinced that it’s their way or the highway. Throw in a generational divide and what you have is a recipe for disaster, not to mention fertile ground for comedy that is as socially insightful as it is a showcase for razor-sharp performances.
On the surface, the two women at the center of Hacks – the acclaimed HBO series created by Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky about a stand-up comedian in the twilight of her career and the hapless young writer tasked with punching up her Vegas act – couldn’t be more different.
Deborah, played by television grand dame Jean Smart, is a well-established Boomer with a mansion on the outskirts of the city and a loyal staff at the ready. She has managed to thrive by clawing her way up the ladder in a male-dominant milieu with no small measure of toxic masculinity, and has so smartly managed her finances that she can bequeath a Rolls Royce to her personal blackjack dealer without batting an eyelash.
Ava, played by dynamic newcomer Hannah Einbinder, is a self-entitled, uncompromising Millennial (or “Zoomer”) who landed a plum comedy writer gig through exposure on social media until an ill-advised tweet derailed her career. A proponent of confessional humor that pulls no punches, Ava views comedians like Deborah as relics of the past, reliant on the set-up/punchline formula of comedy that Ava associates with a “male” sensibility at best, and humor for the “Panera people” at worst.
Deborah dresses in lavish gowns and heels, Ava in t-shirts and Doc Martens. Deborah eats clean, maintains a fitness regimen and gets plenty of sleep; Ava is driven by impulse, gorges on junk food and parties like it’s 1999.
And yet the two share an amazing amount in common: both have been wounded in love, show a steely ambition with a take-no-prisoners resolve, like to push buttons, exhibit the capacity to turn from compassion to cruelty on a dime, and display a keen intelligence that elevates them a notch above their peers even though they’re not always adept at wielding it in their favor.
At the end of the day, what sets them apart eventually draws them together–experience. Deborah is not averse to administering tough love when the situation calls for it. For example, when the two find themselves stranded together in the desert as the result of a flat tire, they are forced to confront their differences.
Ava complains that Deborah is not giving her enough respect because she’s “good.” But as Deborah explains with stinging emphasis: “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.”
Smart’s comic heroes range from Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller and Elayne Boosler to Sam Kinison, Robin Williams and Steve Martin. But she looked to them more for inspiration than mimicry. “I love watching people do comedy,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter, “but I wanted this to come from my own instincts because I felt that if I tried to do somebody else that it wouldn’t feel very organic. And I just knew it had to be my rhythms, my instincts, and I think it worked out OK.”
For her part, Einbinder is well aware about the hazards of social media and the pitfalls of Twitter. “I believe social media is cool for whoever loves it, but I feel sucked into a vortex of negativity,” Einbinder explains, “sort of opposite to the kinds of conversations that lead to understanding and progress.”
In the show, Deborah, whose material has been workshopped and honed over years of live performance, is not exactly a “clean” comic, but she’s puzzled and put off by Ava’s tendency to shock and provoke with brutal honesty. Ava, who has no filter, thinks the adversity Deborah has navigated in her rise to the top is ripe material that should be mined.
Hacks is a series where the mutual respect is earned, and by the time it comes, many viewers will feel like they’ve lived it, and the writers and performers are capable of drawing you into these characters, warts and all, because the psychologies are so intimately explored and exposed, and the actors are performing a master class in nuance and emotion. As The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix observed in her review of the show, “Einbinder works hard to match Smart, and, at moments, I felt myself flush.”
These two reluctant partners become a comedy team, but not in the Lewis/Martin or Nichols/May kind of way. They are mentor and muse, and the roles, remarkably, become interchangeable. Both learn to confront their fears and their doubts together, and the fulfilment blossoms more from the inside rather than the usual external signs of success.
If one didn’t know better, the statuesque Smart, with her 40-plus-years as an actor, could be viewed as a Deborah prototype, on the downward swing of an illustrious career – if she wasn’t entering into her prime. The Hollywood Reporter’s chief TV critic Daniel Fienberg earlier this year called 2021 “the spring of Jean Smart” in that she’s “been everywhere,” culminating in Emmy nominations for not just her lead in Hacks but also for supporting in Mare of Easttown. “This (Hacks) role had everything that I could have had on a list of dream jobs for my next show,” she told Feinberg, “and it was this.”
Smart touts 11 Emmy nominations and three wins to date, while Einbinder earned her supporting actress nomination for her first substantial role – not bad for somebody who made her network debut last year as the youngest comedian to appear on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert at age 23.
But Smart and Einbinder aren’t the only ones who are basking in the Emmy love; the show earned an astounding 15 nominations, including one for fellow cast member Carl-Clemons Hopkins as Deborah’s beleaguered COO Marcus Vaughn, a directing nomination for Aniello, also recognized for her writing alongside co-creators Statsky and Downs, the latter whom also shines as Deborah and Ava’s put-upon talent manager Jimmy. In addition, revered stage actress Jane Adams was nominated as outstanding guest actress in a comedy series for her role as Ava’s scattered mom, Nina, and she makes the most out of her screen time. All this on top of Hacks’ nomination for outstanding comedy series.
The show might first and foremost be a character study, but the cinematography, production design, single camera editing (for not just one but three different episodes), casting and sound mixing were all recognized as state of the art by the TV Academy, and deservedly so. The tracking-shot of Deborah, in glittery sequins, closing her act on stage in a Vegas ballroom that leads backstage, eventually winding into her dressing room in the pilot is both eye candy and sumptuous scene setter, and that level of cinematic vision is evident throughout the series.
While Hacks can be seen as mirroring cancel culture and #metoo politics, at the end of the day it stands as a poignant exploration of kindred spirits. Or as St. Félix put it, “It’s a look at the soul of the artist: what truths she is able to speak, and what she forces herself to express.”
For co-creators Aniello, Downs and Statsky, whose keen chemistry was established on the acclaimed comedy series Broad City throughout its five-year run that ended in 2019, the idea of revolving a series around women in comedy had been gestating in their minds for the better part of a decade.
“I think like most ideas worth pursuing, (this) has those kind of legs so that you just keep coming back to them,” says Statsky. “It could be years and years and you just keep thinking about it. Certainly six years is a little bit longer than the average. You would take it out and pitch it sooner than that, but we were all doing different things.”
The idea that women aren’t funny has been disproved repeatedly over the decades in movies, television and on the proverbial standup stage with a mic and a brick wall. And for Hack’s creators, disproving that premise is merely a jumping-off point.
For Aniello, the series is “about a relationship… It’s about women in the arts who’ve had to play on an uneven playing field. And these women find themselves pushed to the fringes of society and the arts. And [they] find each other [as people] looking on the outside in. It’s more about that than anything that feels buzzy or hashtaggy.”
Adds Downs: “We wanted it to feel like a show that has a life, that you can watch over and over again and stand the test of time.”
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