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'Hacks': A Comedic Generational Divide Gets Bridged, (Jean) Smartly

L to R: Legendary comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) performs while her reluctant assistant Ava (Hannah Einbinder) literally waits in the wings on <em>Hacks</em>.
Jake Niles Getter
L to R: Legendary comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) performs while her reluctant assistant Ava (Hannah Einbinder) literally waits in the wings on Hacks.

There exists, in some alternate universe, a version of the new HBO Max series Hacks that is spikier, faster, meaner — and as a result, considerably thinner, less generous and less rewarding — than the one that premieres today.

Happily, this one's pretty great, because it achieves and maintains a delicate balance born out of: 1. Knowing its subject and 2. A determination to treat its two lead characters fairly.

There's a make-or-break moment in the pilot that establishes that balance, that confidence and that generosity all at once: Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a successful young comedy writer fallen on hard times, has been forced by her manager (co-creator Paul W. Downs) to meet legendary standup comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) at her Vegas home. Deborah's Vegas residency is threatened by a casino owner looking to reach a younger audience than Deborah draws, so she reluctantly agrees to the meet.

The battle lines are drawn: Deborah is a comic of the Joan Rivers generation and mindset — her act is full of bawdy zingers at her ex-husband and winking self-deprecation at the prospect of aging. Every joke builds to a punchline that's been honed to practiced perfection over the years. She's a consummate pro, even if her references are getting rusty (she's still going to the Anna Nicole Smith well, for example). There's an edge to her comedy, sure, but its not one so sharp that it threatens to cut any of the thousands of tourists that show up to see her shows between hitting the nickel slots.

Ava's comedy is weirder, more conceptual. Younger. Birthed and fueled by social media, she sees traditional punchlines as a marker of hackdom; they are things to be fled, in favor of, say, "a 25-tweet thread from the perspective of my Lexapro." She's also got a set of hackles that get dependably raised by Deborah's coarser, less enlightened jokes.

The show is teetering on knife-edge, in this scene. You can imagine it going one of two ways: Either it adopts Ava's point of view and proceeds to depict Deborah as a cartoon of an out-of-touch comedy relic with a fossilized understanding of race and gender whose wealth and station have turned her into a pampered diva. Or it takes Deborah's side, and becomes a thin excuse for an endless string of exasperated jokes about Millennials, vaping, sexting and "cancel culture."

We then learn that Ava's lost her cushy gig writing for a show in L.A. because of a joke she tweeted about a US Senator. And we think: That's it then, the die is cast. The show's an excuse to whine about "cancel culture" and vape pens and avocado toast. Whee.

And then, soon after the Ava-Deborah meeting goes south, we learn what exactly the tweet in question was, and we deflate even more.

Because we've seen comedy written about the comedy business before, countless times, and it rarely works. It's come to be called the Studio 60 phenomenon, named for Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, his attempt to offer a behind-the-scenes peek at the makings of an SNL-like sketch comedy show. The behind-the-scenes stuff was full of the kind of comedic dialogue Sorkin could write in his sleep. But the scenes? The actual sketches? Upon which the conceit of the series entirely depended? Were so woefully, painfully unfunny they represented a serial assault on the audience's suspension of disbelief, from which the show could never recover.

We think that's what's going on, here, too, at first. Because Ava's tweet 1. Would never, on the face of it, result in anything approaching "cancellation" and 2. ...

Well, that's the thing. That's when the show firmly establishes that it knows whereof it speaks. Because that's when Deborah rolls her eyes at Ava, and tells her exactly what we the audience is thinking: "It's just not funny," she says. (They proceed to workshop the joke, and they make it better. Better, not good. This seems important.)

From that moment on, Hacks lets the hard, caricature-like outlines of both Ava and Deborah proceed to abrade away as the two women are allowed to become rounded, real characters. They still clash, often, over the course of the season (the first six episodes out of the season's ten were released to press), because that's where the show's humor is chiefly located. But those clashes tend to be small, smartly observed and specific, not cartoonishly broad. That they will both grudgingly come to acknowledge and validate each other's comedic sensibilities is a foregone conclusion, given the series' odd-couple setup; the delight resides in the unforced chemistry between Smart and Einbeinder, and in how that mutual respect evolves.

I don't know if the role of Deborah Vance was written for Smart, but she certainly makes it seem like it was. Moments that could be played for unkind laughs — a Sally-Field-in-Soapdish moment when Deborah boards a Hollywood tour bus in search of validation, say — are instead played for their humanity and vulnerability. As a result, the payoffs prove infinitely more satisfying. Smart's also convincing as a standup, performing Deborah's vaguely hokey routines with a naturalistic flair as if she was born to it.

Einbinder's role is arguably trickier, as she's tasked with playing someone the audience is inclined to empathize with, even as she continually evinces behavior that's self-involved or self-destructive. But again: Hacks isn't interested in painting either of its leads with a broad brush, and Ava is given several moments of self-awareness and selflessness that add layers of nuance, and understanding.

To say that Hacks is refreshingly and surprisingly generous to its two leads — and to its supporting characters, like Carl Clemons-Hopkins' gently sardonic C.O.O. Marcus and Kaitlin Olson as Deborah's messy daughter — isn't to slot it into the warm-fuzziness of a show like say, Ted Lasso. It's both sharper and (not for nothing) queerer than that. But like that hugely engaging series, Hacks creates a world of characters and dialogue and situations you want to spend as much time with as possible.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
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