Hacks, an HBO Max show about a floundering comic legend and sort-of-canceled television writer, is genuinely enjoyable television, if not entirely groundbreaking, which for now I think is just fine for me. This is helped greatly by the addition of Jean Smart in a starring role, delivering what is shaping up to be the performance of a lifetime.
The first two episodes of Hacks tell the story of flailing Los Angeles screenwriter—there’s always one of these, isn’t there?—Ava (Hannah Einbinder), who was unceremoniously ousted from Twitter after cracking a joke about a gay politician and his son who he sent to conversion therapy. Without a job prospect in sight, Ava is shipped off to Las Vegas by her agent to ghostwrite jokes for legendary stand-up comic Deborah Vance (Smart). Vance has her own crisis brewing; after literally thousands of shows on the strip, her hotel benefactors want to pull funding and dates for her show in favor of “newer, younger” acts. Like Pentatonix!
Vance and Ava don’t get along in the least. After the latter learns she’s been set up by their mutual agent, Vance calls Ava all sorts of names, and Ava condescends the furniture inside Vance’s palatial Vegas estate, including one memorable quip about Liberace wiping his asshole all over her silk pillows. Unexpectedly, the Liberace joke causes Vance to chase Ava down Las Vegas Boulevard in a Rolls-Royce, after which she demands Ava tell her the joke about the gay senator. They workshop it a little, and Ava gets hired on the spot.
While Ava is filled with all the expected ennui of a tortured Los Angeles writer, Einbinder still pulls off a unique and disaffected performance. Kudos that she can keep up with Smart’s performance as QVC queen Vance, whose own ennui is multitudinous and expertly layered—much like Charlene, as whom Smart made a name for herself in the legendary sit-com Designing Women.
Smart’s Vance is a woman who shoos away her housekeeper to change her own CO2 tank on her home-soda machine, collects $10,000 antique salt-and-pepper shakers, burned her ex-husband’s house down, and managed to pull off more shows on the strip than any other act in its history. She’s abrasive and unlikable and just a little homophobic—she quizzes Ava on why she’s dressed like Rachel Maddow early on in their working relationship. Feel free to park anchor here with me for a while. I’m having a fabulous time.
Faults aside, however, Vance is one of those star-in-the-sky characters, with
Emmy-winning material that writers dream of creating and actors of being remembered for. In a sea of procedural cop shows and ‘80s reboots and superhero silver-screen romps, Hacks is an island all her own.