Stylish, heartfelt ‘Hacks’ gives classic stand-up comedy a face-lift

Illustration of Deborah Vance in Las Vegas
Armaan Mumtaz/Senior Staff

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

It’s Jean Smart’s world; we’re just living in it.

Beginning with “Watchmen” in fall 2019, Smart has become a lynchpin in HBO’s original programming. Eighteen months later, she has followed up her Emmy-nominated performance with a one-two punch, appearing in two of the summer’s most popular television series: “Mare of Easttown” and “Hacks.”

Though she excels in both, “Hacks” is the series that gives Smart the most room to shine, and she doesn’t squander the opportunity. Supported by a rock-solid cast and a surprising sentimental tendency, Smart makes the show a must-watch. Despite its familiar construction, “Hacks” is a deceptively unique, subversive series that carves out yet another new niche in the comedy television genre.

“Hacks” is about, well, two hacks, albeit ones from very different walks of life. Deborah Vance (Smart) is a legendary older comedian performing a nightly set in Las Vegas, but despite her credentials, stale material has brought her show to the verge of cancellation. Enter Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder), a 25-year-old comedy writer who’s already faced a cancellation of her own — a risky tweet got her fired from her job and poisoned her reputation in Los Angeles. The pair comes to an uneasy agreement, understanding that each needs the other to resuscitate their respective careers.

“Hacks” takes place in Las Vegas, and the show never forgets it. The series is entirely grounded in its location, making deft use of the thin boundary between the city’s blinding skyline and vast desert surroundings to communicate how quickly stardom can be reduced to dust. Not since “Ocean’s Eleven” has a piece of art so deeply understood the strange beauty that Las Vegas has to offer. The stylish episode “Falling,” directed by co-creator Paul W. Downs, captures the city’s elusive grandeur as seen through the bright eyes of a carefree, mystical visitor whom Ava connects with instantly.

The visitor (played with devastating precision by Jeff Ward) represents another facet of Las Vegas: The brilliant facade often conceals something far darker. The manic pixie dream guy ends up falling far short of Ava’s hopes that he might save her from comedy purgatory — not a wholly original premise, but a fascinating one due to the reversal of typical gender roles. When combined with Downs’ direction, the episode is exemplary of what makes “Hacks” a standout series. It may not be turning the genre on its head, but it’s never boring, and it’s sometimes even breathtaking.

But the core of “Hacks” is Smart — after all, the universe of the show revolves around her character. But what a character she is. Deborah isn’t just a mean boss, out-of-touch boomer or washed-up comedian. Of course, she’s all of these things, but she’s far greater than the sum of her parts. 

Smart makes you feel in your bones that Deborah was placed on this earth to tell jokes, that the imperiling of her show is truly a matter of life and death, not just for her career, but for her spirit. She’s flawed, but she’s not clueless; she knows exactly what she wants and what she needs to do to get it. 

It’s a supremely refreshing take on a character we’ve seen myriad times before, most recently in “Late Night,” a film about a talk show host who brings on a young writer to help boost her ailing ratings. What separates Smart’s Deborah from these characters is that she feels like a real person who had a real career and a real life prior to when we meet her, and her experiences inform the direction she’s going in now. You can see it all in Smart’s eyes, behind her weary yet fiery smile.

“Hacks” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it certainly finds a special way to use it: And with Smart in control, it’s a serious competitor in the 2021 Emmys race. For its keen eye, sharp wit and big heart, it deserves all the awards it will get. 

Matthew DuMont is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].