Why ‘Hacks’ Is Everyone’s New TV Obsession

This show is a love letter to funny women in comedy.

hacks stan review photo

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The first episode of Hacks deliciously builds to a confrontational meeting between its two protagonists, Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), an out-of-vogue Las Vegas comedy queen, and Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder), a struggling, recently cancelled comedy writer.

— Warning: There are some small spoilers for episode one ahead. — 

By this point, we’ve had a beautiful twenty minutes of setting up exactly why these two characters are going to combust when they are forced together in the glitzy parlour of a Vegas mansion, narrative alchemical reagents ready to explode when shaken up. And what follows is close to ten minutes of very funny, very witty combustion, with the two characters expertly insulting each other, using set-ups and punchlines that range from coarse (a topical stool sample on the front lawn gag) to slightly more esoteric (a Liberace’s butthole reference in 2021?).

It’s very funny, and very clever, and worth the build-up — and because Hacks is a very clever show, not only are we shown exactly what kind of comedy chops we can expect from it, it’s also the scene where our characters take each other’s mettle. And like us, they’re impressed.

In this argument, Deborah Vance unwittingly laughs at a good insult slung her way — it’s like a fencer conceding a point. This show is a love letter to funny women in comedy — and unlike The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, which has similar themes and subjects, it’s not glossy and rose-tinted. This show loves the hard-working veterans, the women who manage to tough it out through an already difficult industry, and comedy’s infamous boys. Midge Maisel does all her best comedy accidentally, when drunk and barging onto stages. We see that Vance and Ava are united by being funny women who work goddamn hard, and there’s nothing accidental about their talent or their success. Also the jokes are funnier and darker.

“Good Is The Minimum, It’s The Baseline”

It’s a relief that the show is good, is excellent — I could tell it was tightly written and “funny” from the beginning, but I only had my first actual out-loud laugh around the previously mentioned Liberace butthole joke.

Like the protagonists measuring each other up, I feel like Australia has gone through the same experience with Hacks itself, a highly anticipated show that we’ve only had access to (legally, on Stan) weeks after it finished its season in America, already carrying the lofty expectations of 15 Emmy nominations, including Best Comedy, and absolutely breathless critical reception. That’s a lot of pressure for a show to live up to, and the perfect set-up to be just mildly disappointed.

Hacks has the kind of pedigree that was always going to create a “highly anticipated” culture though — it’s created by Broad City’s Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky, and even has TV comedy behemoth Mike Schur as an executive producer.

But a lot of the praise has been reserved for the casting — with many thrilled that TV veteran Jean Smart has been finally given the lead role in her own show, with a lot of reviewers chattering somewhat reductively about a “Jeanaissance” — as The New Yorker points out, “she never went away”. She’s been in TV since the seventies, with roles in shows like Frasier, 24, and Fargo.

But Jean Smart is definitely on something of a spree lately, with recent lauded credits including the role of Helen Fahey, the mother of the titular Mare, in last month’s critically acclaimed crime-drama Mare of Easttown, and an absolutely brilliant performance as Agent Laurie Blake in Watchmen.

I think that’s why Deborah Vance on Hacks is the perfect role for Jean Smart — like Vance, she’s been working for a long time, and working hard. Vance has a lot of flaws — she’s prickly, egotistical, controlling — but it’s clear that she’s earned every moment of her success. Smart’s wonderful and funny performance contains all those nuances and contradictions too, and showcases perfectly why people are excited that she’s been given a chance to flex with this character.

The rest of the cast is at the same level — Hannah Einbinder does a very good job of depicting Ava, a spiralling millennial in a career crisis, which I’m not sure is a recognisable trope yet on TV, but one I’m intimately involved in from my own life. She’s a strong foil for Smart, and also manages to navigate the delicate line of doing annoying things on screen, without annoying the audience too. While the early episodes, in particular, are very focused on the protagonists, every character involved has moments to shine — my personal highlight is the brief Meg Stalter scenes, because she’s the funniest woman alive.

The Original Odd-Couple

Hacks is built off a tried and true sitcom format: take two people who are different and put them in a situation, shake them up, and see what happens.

It’s the original odd-couple, and the reason it works is that comedy and drama both come from conflict from the friction of two people being smashed together by a writer’s room. In Hacks, while there are differences in class and wealth and personality all at play, the big angle is generational — Boomer generation Vance is losing her performance slots to hipper, younger acts, and is forced to collaborate with 25-year-old Ava, who has just been cancelled and lost all her TV work, due to bad tweet.

“There needs to be a wealth tax,” says Ava in disbelief, as she first sights the ostentatious mansion that Vance lives in. It’s a perfect example of the base conflict between the characters, the duelling perspectives.

Vance and Ava are united by being funny women who work goddamn hard, and there’s nothing accidental about their talent or their success.

Ava is not used as a stand-in for young people, as a parody — she’s 25, so not a Gen Z as a lot of critics are mistakenly claiming. Her problems stem from her mistakes kicking her out of a successful career. She has a mortgage. She’s young, but that’s not all she is.

Likewise, Deborah Vance is not a generic character. While comparisons could be made to other pioneers in comedy of her age — such as Joan Rivers — she’s not meant to be relatable to anyone else of that age. She burnt down her ex-husband’s house and has a wardrobe entirely of gold lame and sequins.

There’s so much in the premise of generational conflict that could be cringe, that could be done badly (I’m thinking of the later seasons of Younger, where youth culture got played again and again as a one-note gag for superficiality and technological excess). But that doesn’t happen here: Deborah and Vance are ultimately connected through their passion for comedy and their work ethic — and it’s done in a way that’s both funny, and nuanced, and ultimately quite heartfelt.

Deborah Vance and Ava are connected by a shared ethos around comedy, and Hacks manifests that by taking a relatively simple premise — an odd couple, with a generational divide — and elevating the punchline beyond the obvious.

Hacks is currently streaming in Australia on Stan.

Patrick Lenton is a journalist and author and former editor of Junkee. His new book Sexy Tales of Paleontology is out now. He tweets @patricklenton.