It only took a few decades, but finally actress Jean Smart, who first made an impression as the statuesque blonde in Eighties sitcom Designing Women, has a starring vehicle worthy of her considerable talents.
Still statuesque and blonde, in Hacks Smart commands the screen as stand-up comedian Deborah Vance, a Las Vegas institution battling to stay relevant. Now 70, Smart won the Primetime Emmy last year for best actress in a comedy, and the show has racked up another 17 nominations for when the next batch of Emmys are handed out in September.
Hacks is a term used in comedy – and journalism – to describe those whose work is obvious or low quality, but the show is anything but hackneyed. Demonstrating yet again that it’s never too late to make the most of your gifts, Smart clearly revels in playing Deborah, a self-confessed shark – also good with a chainsaw – who’s too busy decimating the competition to waste time being cuddly.
A comedy about writing comedy, in lesser hands Hacks could be one of those navel-gazing vehicles where Hollywood turns an adoring gaze on itself. Sharp and witty, most radically Hacks is focused on two women more than four decades in age and several universes in outlook apart.
When we meet Deborah, she’s on the cusp of a legendary 2,500 shows, with audiences fawning, minions grovelling and private jet waiting, just the way she likes it. But change is coming, and soon she’s fighting to stay in the spotlight. To do so, she has to go within and excavate some authenticity.
Deborah needs a fresh outlook to appeal to younger audiences and begrudgingly she employs a woke ’n’ whiny showbiz outcast called Ava Daniels. Played by comedian Hannah Einbinder, Ava desperately wants to be one of the cool kids, but keeps turning the blowtorch on herself with impulsive behaviour, lack of tact and substance-fuelled meltdowns. Having cremated her career, 25-year-old Ava resents leaving the entertainment capital of Los Angeles for hokey Vegas, resents the disregard of her immense genius, resents the success of anyone who isn’t as evolved and culturally aware as she is.
Deborah doesn’t care about being culturally aware. She cares about her fans, her money and her dogs (not necessarily in that order). She resents Ava taking breaks for granted without acknowledging the struggles of women who fought for every opportunity in a tough, male-dominated business. Anyone who’s ever been to a comedy club will know the boorish MC who makes tasteless, sexist jokes that are about as funny as a toothpick in the eyeball. Deborah can’t take them all on, but she does eliminate one.
Digging around in the conflict between crusty survivor and talented but self-absorbed younger woman drives much of the narrative. Their “dark mentorship” is volatile, and like most relationships, there’s laughter, tears, and a dash of litigation.
Ava has a knack for annoying everyone she meets, but in the midst of insulting each other, Deborah also perceives a spark. Both think they’re right all the time, and there are plenty of masterful insults. Deborah is deliciously diva-esque, casting iPads into swimming pools when they have the temerity to display something offensive, like a rival. But Deborah is also a grafter and no job is too small. She maintains her colossal French chateau by hawking elasticised leggings on a shopping channel and signing bald heads at the launch of a pizza restaurant.
Ava, ever aware of the need to compost and atone for colonialism, complains incessantly about being torn from her beloved, faddish LA. On an ill-advised return to the city, she buys a matcha latte and pays nearly $12 for it. “That’s so expensive!” she shrieks. “I love it.”
They both have vulnerabilities and Deborah’s tough shell protects past hurts. Ava has a challenging family background and needs to support her parents financially. Both are abrasive in different ways. The difference is that Deborah has paid her dues, refuses to ever give up, and been smart enough to become immensely wealthy. If Deborah annoys people, they’re mostly on the payroll and she makes it worth their while.
Ava likes to say how she’s feeling about everything, pretty much all the time, and is known for her TMI (Too Much Information) moments which can be unleashed like nuclear missiles once she’s had a few drinks.
In the second season the duo hit the road, dealing with unimpressed crowds, angry lesbians at sea and being upstaged by a cow. Ava is horrifically disloyal, and Deborah relishes torturing her for it. But even in the midst of ensuring Ava can’t sleep without getting smacked in the face, Deborah does help retrieve Ava’s father from a dumpster.
Despite their differences, they’re more alike than they might care to admit. In a moment of introspection, Deborah tells Ava she’s just “as selfish and cruel as I am”. Deborah is open to learning from Gen Z though – she offsets her private jet by buying a reusable cup.
Few television shows hinge on a relationship like this one, where two women – one older and powerful, the other smart and young – share a strong if adversarial bond. There are brilliantly inventive scenes, such as when Ava visits a museum to try and break into a smartphone.
The secondary characters, including a substance-abusing, rock-tumbling daughter who marries a cage fighter, a blackjack dealer who gets Deborah’s cast-off Rolls-Royces, and a gay merchandise manager who finds flipping real estate less challenging than dinner dates, are all great fun. If you didn’t think sexual harassment could be amusing, then Deborah’s manager Jimmy dealing with the worst assistant in the world could convince you otherwise.
Completely unsentimental, it’s refreshing to see complex women on screen who aren’t always likeable, but are always compelling. When Deborah expresses anxiety about whether people will hate her, Ava says reassuringly, “Plenty of people can still hate you.” As critics have noted, Deborah can be nice, and Deborah can be vile, and there are no prizes for guessing which is more entertaining.
Having recently been awarded an Emmy, a third season of Hacks is in production by HBO Max. Catch up on the first two on Amazon Prime.
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A former theatre and comedy critic, Carolyn O’ Donnell was a senior journalist at The Times and has written extensively on arts and culture. Her travel writing has appeared in The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and many airline magazines. In 2021 she won the Christopher Hewitt Award for fiction.