emergency discussion

Let’s Disagree About Hacks

Photo: Karen Ballard/HBO Max

Occasionally, it is necessary to convene a conversation between Vulture writers to discuss an important and timely issue in the culture. This time, Jackson McHenry, Nicholas Quah, and Kathryn VanArendonk debate the virtues and vices of Hacks

Kathryn VanArendonk: We are gathered here today to take up a question that some of us have been whispering to each other quietly for two full seasons now: What, exactly, is quite so earth-shattering about Hacks? The HBOMax series, which just concluded its second season, is often spoken of in glowing, rapturous language. It reveals truths about comedy! It speaks to the cuspy zoomer–boomer divide in a way nothing else can! Meg Stalter! … Women! But the end of season two feels like the time to step back from last year’s well-deserved Jean Smart: National Treasure campaign and consider the show with a more critical eye.

So I’ll ask: Is Hacks bad, actually?

Jackson McHenry: It’s thrilling for me to be given the platform to share my long-held opinion that, yes, Hacks is bad. My relationship to this show is like my relationship with cilantro: Many people I know and respect keep saying they love its flavor, but it tastes like soap to me. I love Jean Smart. I like the concept of a show about the compromises you make working as a comedian. But Hacks doesn’t have the deftness or critical perspective to pull its setup into something compelling. Most of the dialogue is clunky, and the characterization is rote. Deborah feels like an outside-in replication of Joan Rivers that misses her core. Ava might as well be a collection of quirks described in a Shouts & Murmurs piece about the youth. I find everything involving Stalter’s character’s obsession with Paul W. Downs’s agent so broad it’s grating. Many of the supporting roles are filled with stock characters; I cannot forgive the sin of casting Laurie Metcalf and then giving her an Aunt Jackie pastiche. The best compliment I can give Hacks is that it seems like there’s a much sharper show trapped inside of it, screaming, “Let me out.”

Nicholas Quah: Hacks is not perfect, but it’s certainly not bad. I liked the first season quite a lot, and I think it’s one of the better things I saw last year. Still, I do share some of your criticisms, and the second season suffered from an overconfidence that made a lot of its first-season weaknesses even worse: clunky dialogue; failing to dig into its conceit of an aging female comedian by reconsidering her history, choices, and place in the world; the actual stand-up not being that convincing.

But! There’s an essential sweetness to the show that speaks to me and, I think, many others. It comes across in the way Hacks fundamentally considers Deborah Vance — it’s always generous in its interpretation and presentation of her, even when the conflict turns comical — and how all its major characters ultimately care about each other. The grand heights of this second season (I’m specifically thinking of the balcony scene in the finale) make a lot of the meh worth it.

KVA: Yes, there are two separate threads here. One is less a criticism of Hacks than it is frustration with the heights of its praise. When the general expectation for a show is that it’s a nice, fun time, it feels downright shitty to say, “No! Your fun time is wrong!” But when a show gets into Emmys territory and thinkpieces-about-its-importance territory, the impulse to pump the brakes seems more reasonable.

The second thread is “maybe the show does have some frustrating flaws that are worth examining.” For instance, I’m curious to learn more about your issues with its lack of critical perspective, Jackson.

JM: Deborah Vance is clearly meant to be an analogue for Joan Rivers, whose path-breaking comedy career was built on all sorts of sexism and racism and body-shaming. This makes her a fascinating figure to put into a television show. (Hacks is in its way like a many-decades-later Maisel, and they would have formed a trio of goyish Joans with that Kathryn Hahn show if it ever got made). But where Joan was spiky, Hacks’s depiction of Deborah reads like a stone smoothed over in a rock tumbler of network notes. She’s callous toward her daughter and often rude to Ava, but never quite cruel. Even her lawsuit in the second season is played for laughs. That makes for a show that is more comforting, I guess, but that misses the opportunity for something deeper.

The soft pedal feels condescending to a character standing in for someone of Joan Rivers’s generation, as if the writers don’t trust the audience to connect with a woman who would be a lot harder to love. For example, the show introduces a strawmen pair of screenwriters at the end of the first season who are writing a show about a terrible female boss. This show, Hacks implies, is some awful sexist screed making fun of women in power, and the way the characters talk about it suggests that the Hacks writers are applauding themselves for giving Deborah an explanatory backstory, thus making her antipathy ultimately explicable. I long for a portrait of a character like her who is more alienating but also more complete. Taking someone to task doesn’t have to be a takedown; it can be a sign that you believe they’re worthy of a more nuanced portrait.

NQ: Well, let’s be clear. This isn’t a Joan River biopic (bioseries?), and I don’t read the show as a critical knife intent on dissecting the historical injustices of the comedy world and Hollywood. That Hacks leans heavily on the glamour and glossiness of show business — I’ve watched a lot of luxury van-life videos on YouTube, and nothing looks as good as that tour bus — suggests these critiques are not a particular priority for the writing team, even as it uses their general architecture as raw material to form Deborah’s character.

Part of me suspects the hang-ups with Hacks might be different if Deborah weren’t a stand-up comedian. I went into the show not having much insider familiarity with the comedy business, so I don’t have strong feelings about how that world should be represented or taken to task within the context of the women Deborah signifies. I took, and continue to take, the show as a fizzy, light variation on the mentor-mentee comedy, or whatever you’d label something like The Devil Wears Prada.

But to answer the overarching question of why Hacks deserves to be thought of as great: Because Jean Smart is really compelling as a successful aging star in the twilight of her career who finds, in Ava, a conduit to finally exercise a sense of care for someone else. I’ll bear the thousand paper cuts of the technical errors if the core thing feels good, which it does.

KVA: It does feel like one key to our varying Hacks responses is what we want it to be and what we see it as trying or not trying to do. I agree that if you have any familiarity with Rivers, or any particular expectations about how comedy works, Hacks has both a higher bar to clear and a more frustrating incapacity to do so. (The less said about the details of the episode about selling a comedy special the better.) It’s also interesting to me that a lot of this has been about Deborah Vance. What little pushback I did see around the first season focused on Hannah Einbinder’s character, whom viewers found annoying or an insufficient match for Smart’s diva-goddess-witch. But I think you’re right, Jackson, that the core of my own critiques are with the way Vance is written — even when I agree fully with Nick that it’s hard not to be happy just spending time with Jean Smart.

I found myself intensely tripped up on one tiny scene where Deborah takes a chainsaw to a treehouse, improbably bringing the whole thing down with nary a scratch to herself. Yes, it’s a silly, impossible capper. But it made me realize I don’t understand who Deborah is supposed to be. Is she a fantasy, or are we impressed with her as a real person in a fantasy life? So many of the surrounding characters are heightened in an absurd way, particularly Kaitlin Olson as her daughter, DJ, and Stalter’s assistant character. Is Deborah one of them? Or is she the only grounded one? When the world of the show wants to encompass both ends of that tonal spectrum, it’s hard to read the stakes. Is Hacks a show about people we’re supposed to care about, or is it … gulp … Entourage?

JM: The heightened comedy around Stalter’s character and Paul W. Downs really confuses me. Both of them exist in an absurdist comedy of Hollywood dealmaking, while Ava is in a second-generation Girls and Jean Smart is trying to make the best of the vagaries of Vance. The Hollywood elements of the show seem to want to be cynical and knowing — there’s a good little detail in Stalter wearing a T-shirt from Oakwood High School, home to some of the most privileged children of the industry, in the finale — but it tends to smudge into laziness. (Why are we still making jokes about This Is 40 being too long in 2022, a decade after its release?) There are shows that run circles around Hacks in the arena of Hollywood humor: The Other Two is more knowing, Girls5Eva hits more laughs, I Hate Suzie cuts deeper. I realize that makes me sound like I only like the bitterest of comedies, but hey, that’s my taste. If Hacks is trying to race in their league, it’s being lapped.

On the Ava side of things, the idea of a character who thinks she’s above selling out but can’t stop herself from doing so is interesting. She should be annoying and a bit privileged. But the lack of specificity in the way Deborah is written rebounds back on her. With a boss who is vaguely and occasionally cruel, but in a funny way, Ava’s reactions can only vary from shocked awe to shocked perturbation. She doesn’t have a lot of steering room. The most interesting aspect of Ava, to me, is the fact that her character already owns property and has mixed feelings about it. She casts herself as a young person speaking truth to power but is already in possession of a great deal of power, and her self-delusion is intriguing. Season two gives her a weird arclet where she hooks up with her subletter while trying to play herself off as a cool landlord, and there’s definitely more to unpack there. (There’s also more to be said about the show’s hazy, lonely, unfulfilled-people-filled depiction of Las Vegas in general, and the second season suffered from leaving that behind for the road.)

Maybe I’m just hung up on the fact that Downs’s character also has a scene about trying to buy property earlier in the season. Hacks isn’t a show about comedy. Hacks is a show about people who own real estate lying to themselves about their own underdog status. Hacks is a Curbed article! I think the show sort of realizes this, but I would love for it to really embrace that tension.

NQ: Yeah, I agree that the comedic tone is all over the place, though I tend to connect that with Jen Statsky, Downs, and Lucia Aniello’s Broad City lineage. There’s a manic, patchworked, not-everything-fits-together nature to that show that I see flowing into Hacks, and as a result, I was able to exercise a take-it-or-leave-it approach to the various comedy plates they were spinning. I hear what you’re saying, Jackson, about Hacks periodically giving off a sense that the writers are trying to engage with Call My Agent–style industry critique, which primarily comes across through little details, jokes, gags. But those bits read to me as flourishes and indulgences, not unlike how you’d get occasional sports references in Michael Schur productions. Relatedly, the Sixers gag early in the Hacks season was … not good, and delivered poorly.

Maybe this is some kind of damning praise, but what I value about Hacks is everything but the comedy, both as a subject and as a mechanism. I didn’t find Ava’s quips or various scenarios to be particularly funny, and yeah, Deborah’s routines feel like training montages to me. (Not that I think the stand-up in a show about a stand-up comedian necessarily needs to be good; the football in Ted Lasso is grade-school stuff, but that doesn’t bother me as a football devotee.)

It’s the sweet, gentle character stuff that stands out to me, even in the ostensible moments of conflict. I loved the diner scene. Ava and Deborah going to see a psychic. I really liked that the final stretch of the second season was essentially a bunch of people who cared for each other coming together to pull off a show. Ava is a bundle of undercooked ideas and commentary, but her best moments are when she’s quite literally a kid — a 20-something freaking out about her dead dad’s ashes being left in a dumpster and needing a parental figure to stand up for her. Maybe there would be a lot less reservation here if Hacks wasn’t about an aging female stand-up comedian but, say, an aging female sushi chef or something.

KVA: Sure! I also love shows about people making shows — see: my relatively high marks for Julia. At some point, though, it becomes really tough to say “this show about a comedian doesn’t need to be right about comedy to be good.” Or at least, it becomes tough to not register that gap. There’s a certain level of self-defeat in basing a show in the comedy world but brushing aside some of the messier, more fraught questions — about how the business side actually works, or the blowback of shifting a comic persona — and instead landing on “her story is more ‘authentic’ now, which makes it better.” I understand that Deborah Vance wants to prove to people that she’s not doing old material anymore, but the show’s implication is that her new, more confessional vein is also a more valued, serious expression of stand-up. I miss the part where she was kind of proud of being hacky?

JM: When Hacks does make one of its hairpin turns into a more serious, softer-lit, late-2010s sad-com, I’m frustrated by how little insight it actually musters. Often, I hear people say that it’s okay that Hacks’s jokes aren’t great because they’re supposed to be hacky. But if its lessons are at the basic level of “honesty in art is good,” then what am I watching for? There’s so much almost-good TV out right now trying to sneak into the Emmy qualification window, and Hacks is the standard bearer of a battalion of shows that have the veneer of prestige but very little to say. Audiences deserve more depth!

KVA: Or if Hacks doesn’t want to be deep, it could stop doing sad stories about all the women who got left behind in stand-up! Pick a lane!

One thing I will say about season two of Hacks, though, is that Deborah’s break-up with Ava in the finale could open some new avenues, or at least change the geometry of how that central relationship has functioned. It does look like the show will be with us for a while, for better or (and?) for worse. As Hacks itself has pointed out, sometimes it takes a while for a comedy to really click; there’s always another stop on the tour. Or maybe Jackson and I will just continue to hold down our little corner as the angry lesbians who don’t get Deborah Vance.

Let’s Disagree About Hacks