In the opening episode of Hacks, HBO’s comedy about the relationship between two women comedians, one at the beginning of her career and one coming to the end, Gen Z wunderkind turned social media pariah Ava asks her long-suffering agent, “Where’s the line?” between being “unfiltered and honest” and just being an unlikeable cunt. Hacks is a show about testing that line, pushing audiences to get over their shit about unlikable women characters. Jean Smart’s Deborah Vance, a legendary woman stand-up whose legend is wearing a little thin, and Hannah Einbinder’s Ava consistently refuse to buff their edges, instead offering foul-mouthed and frank portrayals of incredibly funny women who also aren’t very good people, two character traits that are exceedingly rare for women leads.
Two of the most talked-about bestselling novels of the early 2010s, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, both relied on the same trick to get around readers’ resistance to women main characters who weren’t “likable.” Each created idealized versions of women heroines—beautiful, grounded, wide-eyed, and innocent—then trashed their own construction of these women midway through the book, revealing their heroines to be anti-heroines: cold, calculating, capable, and completely obsessed with controlling their destinies to the point of monomania. All the hallmarks of an unlikeable woman at the center of a likable shell. These shells were in service of the plot, but they were also a sugar-coating necessary to get the reader to swallow a woman who was more like a Goodfella than a Steel Magnolia.
And while the ruse worked beautifully, both in terms of crafting surprising narratives and sidestepping the demands we make on women leads to be “relatable,” it’s maddening that the flip side of constant lip-service to the idea women can do anything is that each woman is uniquely good in her own way. Hacks, refreshingly, offers no such promises. Ava is spoiled, self-obsessed, and newly canceled for an ill-advised tweet. Her girlfriend has left. Her former friends call her a self-serving opportunist. But Hacks isn’t a show about Ava becoming less of an asshole, it’s a show about doubling down on the characterization by giving her a soulmate in veteran Boomer comedian Deborah Vance.
Deborah is spoiled, self-obsessed, and her long-standing Vegas show is about to be canceled. Her daughter sells her photos to tabloids for extra money, and in exchange for the abysmal parenting job Deborah has done, it seems like a fair trade. Her only friends are on her payroll. When she and Ava meet in the first episode it’s to point out the ways that each are delusional about their own importance: Deborah’s prized home decor is tacky; Ava’s carefully crafted tough-girl clothing makes her look like a Victorian urchin. They bond over perfecting a punchline about a closeted Senator, and the series begins, giving its audience no clear moral or redemption arc for these assholes trying to make their way in a world full of them. Their relationship grows in that the two come to hate each other less, but by the end, Ava will still leak secrets about Deborah just like her daughter does and Deborah is still capable of slapping Ava across the face. The narrative arc of the series isn’t how human their relationship makes them; it’s how they use their relationship to discover which narrative is most marketable.
In prestige television, this “how bad is this character going to be” premise isn’t novel. Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Curb Your Enthusiasm are all successful television shows about the thrill of watching “bad” people navigate the world. The only difference in Hacks is that the two characters are women, but the change makes all the difference in a show that becomes a meta-commentary on the way stories about women are allowed to be told. It’s not that women on television are never terrible people. But in a series like Girls, the main characters’ privileged narcissism is written as a growing pain. For a series like Fleabag, it is a result of trauma ultimately requiring the main character to forgive herself in order to heal. Hacks couldn’t give less of a shit about excusing or negating the awfulness of its two women leads and instead focuses on two women artists looking for new ways to market their trauma, something that women artists are asked to do again and again, just like Ava and Deborah. Their industry is predatory, but they’re also looking to sell out. Ultimately, the series is a darkly comic look at what that sale looks like in the current cultural zeitgeist that ignores the common impulse to teach women characters a lesson.
“You know I love your strong, female POV—obsessed,” Ava’s agent tells her, just before he tells her she needs to self-edit so people will like her. Likewise, Deborah’s long-running Vegas act has outstayed its welcome, leaving both to struggle together in an effort to figure out what audiences want to hear. After Deborah’s eyelid lift at a Nevada medi-spa, she finally reveals that her entire stand-up career has been a lie: Famous for having burned down her first husband’s house, Deborah tells Ava that the fire was caused by a faulty dryer. At the time, those around her took her cheating ex-husband’s word over hers and she realized that she could cash in on how ready audiences were to laugh at a crazy lady, essentially reverse-Gone Girl-ing herself as the villain of her own narrative.
It’s Ava who realizes that just as Deborah cashed in on the narrative people wanted to hear in the 1970s, new, woke audiences would love to hear this new version with Deborah Vance as a victim. It will not only sell, it will make headlines because, as Deborah puts it, “People think it’s highbrow now to tell sad stories.”
In Episode 8, Ava accuses Deborah of “ladder-pulling” by not going after the owner of a string of comedy clubs and a known sexual abuser once she had the power to do so. “Not to victim-blame,” Ava begins, using pop-culture lingo to offer Deborah criticism for doing nothing about the creeps that, sometimes quite literally, brushed up against her on her way to the top. At first, Deborah balks, but after seeing a new stand-up sexually harass another young comic outside her dressing room, Deborah rethinks her stance.
“Let me tell you all what’s going on,” she tells the crowd. “He’s pretending to flirt with me, so I have two options. I can shoot him down and not play along, but then I’m a bad sport and not funny and a cold bitch... and if I do that, then it’s awkward, and then it’s going to be harder to win you back. Or I do play along, which, let’s face it, is easier, and then I’m sexualizing myself on his terms.”
In the end, she changes the narrative completely, offering the terrible man in the comedy club $1.69 million dollars to never perform comedy again, in front of an audience full of recording phone screens, positioning herself as the headline-grabbing hero pointing out the flaws in the narrative options. But in the parking lot, Deborah Vance is still a woman who tries to hit her estranged sister (perhaps rightfully) with a car. “Never forgive, never forget, baby,” she says, cackling.
The sentiment is reminiscent of the writing philosophy of two other comedians, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, for their work on Seinfeld’s legendary eponymous sitcom: “No growing, no learning.” That’s not to say Ava and Deborah are flat characters.
“I think shitty things keep happening because I’m a self-centered asshole and I deserve it,” Ava tells Deborah, after a one-night stand with a man who dies by suicide the next morning. Upon seeing the ambulances and police outside the hotel room she shared with him, Ava subsequently realizes she asked the suicidal man no questions about himself while she prattled on about how much she hated Deborah. Not that this realization changes anything: Ava will later prattle on about herself to two television writers for an entire job interview before even asking what their show is about. Likewise, Deborah has known all along her daughter sells her pictures to the paparazzi, and she just also knows she deserves it. The series isn’t about the pair of them learning to be different, it’s about artists as self-centered assholes attempting to present themselves the kind of likable women audiences will buy. And just as the reverse-redemption narrative worked so surprisingly beautifully the better part of a decade ago, Hacks’ start to finish refusal to concede that its women characters need redemption at all makes it some of the most subtly original television of the year.