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A mountain range, a multi-million-dollar fortune and a seemingly insurmountable generational gap divide the two female comedians at the heart of HBO Max’s half-hour dramedy Hacks. In her umpteenth year at her Vegas residency, Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) is a fading legend — picture all the tartness, workaholism and tragic personal history of Joan Rivers in her later years, but leggy and voluptuous. On the other side of the Sierra Nevadas is 20-something LA comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder), whose career has been recently derailed by a bad tweet. Brought together by their mutual manager (co-creator Paul W. Downs) so that Ava can anonymously help Deborah clear the cobwebs from her material, the prickly pair will soon realize they’re more alike than they think — not that that helps them get along any better.
Smart has enjoyed a welcome career revival in the past few years, becoming a go-to supporting player in buzzy dramas like Fargo, Watchmen, Legion and Mare of Easttown, but her starring role here allows her to finally showcase her wild versatility. Along with its Vegas setting, Hacks takes place in the many fissures between Deborah and Ava, but series creators Downs, Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky are clearly more fascinated by their grande dame than their surly, street-stupid newbie. Smart repays their favor with a charmingly unpredictable performance full of sneaky barbs, naughty insouciance, aloof authority, mercurial changes in mood and sundry layers of repressed pain. You’ve seen versions of Deborah before, but Smart keeps you anticipating what she’ll bring to her character in each new scene.
Hacks finds Deborah suddenly on the outs with her casino-developer boss (Christopher McDonald), who wants her to vacate the stage on Friday and Saturday nights for a younger-skewing act. Desperation leads Deborah to hire Ava, who becomes a fish not only out of water but drying out in the desert heat (and smoke-filled interiors) of the Las Vegas Strip, where the older comedian somewhat inexplicably puts up her new employee. Pilot director Aniello ably channels Sin City’s surreal proportions and Liberacian excesses, but a more three-dimensional depiction of the show’s milieu might have incorporated more of the tan normalcy of Vegas beyond the Strip and its entertainers.
For a show by three creatives so associated with Broad City, Hacks is surprisingly ungenerous to its millennial character. Ava often feels more like a caricature of her generation than a real person: entitled, preachy, woker-than-thou. She’s a pill to be around — not just for the people around her, but for the audience too — making her most enjoyable scenes the ones where she discovers more about Deborah, such as why she won’t talk to her sister anymore, or where the mutual suspicions stop in her relationship with her feckless adult daughter (Kaitlin Olson).
There’s a schematic quality to the series’ foundation that Hacks mostly fails to outgrow in the first six of its 10 episodes. Deborah and Ava’s boomer-versus-millennial, heartland-versus-the-coasts, experience-versus-innovation tensions are constanrly telegraphed without becoming organic to the characters. Occasionally, their differences can lead to interesting discussions, like the women arguing whether, at this juncture, comedy can and should outgrow the setup-punchline structure of most jokes. But Ava’s primarily there as a sad-sack punching bag or the audience surrogate in uncovering the hidden depths of a comedy pioneer who might be tarnishing her legacy by selling questionable wares on QVC and retreating to a secluded mansion that Ava sneeringly compares to the Cheesecake Factory. Deborah and Ava eventually learn from each other, but only one half of that series mandate — Deborah’s journey in rediscovering the parts of herself she’d buried long ago to survive her industry — reaches poignancy.
Smart is convincing as a standup, but Hacks isn’t especially funny — partly because Deborah’s jokes are supposed to be dusty, partly because, at least in this case, it’s not terribly hilarious watching two comedians workshop jokes. Their overdetermined platonic romance — which joins The Devil Wears Prada and 2019’s Late Night in the too-small canon of women mentors and protégées gaining an appreciation for each other — makes the scenes with the supporting players a necessary respite. Carl Clemons-Hopkins embodies the daily frustrations and practiced blind eye required of Deborah’s right-hand man Marcus, but it’s the sly pragmatism and unself-conscious exuberance that Poppy Liu exudes in her brief scenes as Deborah’s personal blackjack dealer Kiki that provides Hacks with its few bursts of real joy.
Not that there isn’t a hint of glee when Deborah abandons Ava by the side of the road by boarding a helicopter she calls for when her Rolls Royce breaks down. Even in the desert, she’s a shark, moving up when she can’t move any further forward.
Cast: Jean Smart, Hannah Einbinder, Carl Clemons-Hopkins
Creators: Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky
Airdate: Thursday, May 13 (HBO Max)
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