The Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon? Jean Smart should be in that.
The Sex and the City reboot? Obviously, Jean Smart should be in that.
How to With John Wilson? I mean, that’s fine. But what about How to With Jean Smart?
This is a long way of saying that, not surprisingly, Jean Smart is fantastic in Hacks. (The show’s first pair of episodes premiere tomorrow on HBO Max, with the rest of the ten-episode season dropping weekly in pairs.) As a legendary stand-up comic forced to work with a young comedy writer, she’s wry, manipulative, complicated, and completely flummoxed by the sensibility of her new collaborator, played by real-life comedian Hannah Einbinder. “They’re not jokes,” Smart’s Deborah Vance says to Einbinder’s Ava Daniels in the second episode after reading some of Ava’s pitches. “They’re like thought poems. I had a horrible nightmare that I got a voice-mail.” Smart stares at the joke for a couple of seconds, as if it will make sense to her if she looks at it long enough. Then she turns her gaze back to Einbinder and squawks: “What?”
In that same conversation about Ava’s “thought poems,” Deborah says that jokes have to have a punch line. Ava disagrees, noting that “traditional joke structure is very male,” a comment that’s basically a mission statement for Hacks. It’s a show about two women that, by design, eschews traditional joke structures. Even though it’s about the art of crafting comedy, Hacks does not operate by cranking out gag after gag. While there are set pieces here and there, most of the humor in the series comes from simply observing human behavior. Co-creators Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello, and Jen Statsky, all alums of Broad City, seem keenly aware that generating laughter isn’t just something that pays the bills for Deborah or for Ava. It’s also sometimes the only thing that keeps oxygen flowing into a woman’s lungs when the world does everything it can to stifle her.
Generational conflict is also a driving force in Hacks. Deborah, whose long-standing dates at a Las Vegas casino are on the verge of being reduced to make room for younger talent, has no interest in working with a young, up-and-coming writer. Ava, a TV writer who lost her deal following a misguided tweet about a conservative senator and his gay son, needs a job but has no desire to pump out punch lines for a stand-up she initially views as past her prime. Their mutual agent, Jimmy (Downs), sets them up to meet anyway. After a disastrous first encounter in which Deborah is rudely dismissive and Ava blasts out a firehose of insults at her potential boss — “I’d rather sling Bang Bang Chicken and Shrimp all day than work here” — Deborah surprises Ava by actually hiring her. It’s the beginning of a love-hate relationship in which two comedians routinely communicate by heckling each other.
Like all good comedians, both Ava and Deborah know that every choice in a joke, each preposition and well-chosen pause, has the potential to take it from average to great. So does the team behind Hacks, who write with such precision that sometimes the sharpness can’t be fully grasped on first viewing. On more than one occasion, a seemingly innocuous, funny piece of dialogue turns out to be a preview of a plot line that doesn’t unfold until a few episodes later. Ava’s voice-mail-nightmare joke, for example, subtly comes back to haunt her in episode six.
The series couldn’t ask for better delivery engines for that writing than Smart and Einbinder, who share a flair for dry comedy but deploy it in ways that highlight their characters’ age difference. Ava’s dehydrated bon mots often turn confessional and overshare-y, while Deborah holds her real emotions closer to her chest in the interest of maintaining her image. Both are judgmental, often for opposing reasons. When Ava complains that too much of Deborah’s set is aimed at satisfying basic “Panera people” who laugh at dumb stuff, Deborah responds, “So you’re telling me that if a lot of people think something is funny, it’s not.” They are both blunt as a hammer on an untapped nail. They hate that about each other, but they also respect it.
As Deborah, Smart dresses up her bluntness with casual elegance, gliding around in flowing blazers and oozing the self-assurance that comes with years of successfully accruing the kind of wealth that allows her to have a sizable staff, a private jet, and a soda fountain in her kitchen. (In addition to her regular stand-up gig, Deborah does a lot of product endorsements and sells her own line of luxury items on QVC.) While Smart sprinkles an appropriate amount of entitlement into Deborah’s demeanor, she also infuses her with grit and a strong work ethic. She’s the kind of woman who could be described as “a tough broad” and who would probably take that description as a compliment. Every time Smart is onscreen, she makes you curious to hear what’s going to come out of her mouth but even more curious to hear how she’s going to say it. When she does allow her shell to crack just enough to reveal some vulnerability, it’s a revelation.
Einbinder’s portrayal is, deliberately, the opposite of elegant. As Ava, she’s kind of a screw-up who is socially insecure, but so confident in her creative instincts that she borders on arrogant. She’s a strong match for Smart in a relationship that’s adversarial but also, as time goes on, more and more like one between a mother and daughter. They’re terrific together.
The two leads are surrounded by a great cast of supporting and recurring actors, including Kaitlin Olson as Deborah’s neglected, irresponsible daughter, Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Deborah’s ludicrously on-top-of-it manager, and Internet fave Meg Stalter as the absolutely out-of-it assistant to Jimmy. (When Jimmy asks for coffee with natural sugar, she brings him coffee with honey in it. “You said natural,” she explains. “It comes from bears.”)
But ultimately, Hacks is about two women struggling against similar forces even though they may not realize it. One is a funny young comedian with a distinctive voice that she isn’t sure people in the entertainment business want to hear. The other is an established, famous comic who spent decades working within the confines of a sexist business and isn’t sure how to break free of those restraints. It’s obvious that they can learn a lot from each other. One of the joys of Hacks is watching how hard and how long they’ll knock heads until they realize that.