What Hacks Proves About Jean Smart

The HBO Max series finally gives a stellar performer the kind of role she deserves. It also slyly questions what took TV so long.

Jean Smart in the HBO show 'Hacks'
HBO

As gratifying as it can be to see an actor disappear into a role, there’s something soul-restoring about an underappreciated star finally twinkling their way front and center in the Hollywood firmament. At 69, Jean Smart has almost five decades of ancillary and co-lead roles to her name—the rapacious Lana in Frasier, the ditsy helpmeet Charlene in Designing Women—but the new HBO Max series Hacks marks the rare time the actor has anchored a show. In promotional posters, she dazzles so brilliantly in gold sequins as the comedian Deborah Vance that you worry for passing motorists caught in the glare. The role finally has space for Smart to be all that she is: magnetic, riotous, strange, as commanding as a general, as complex as calculus. When Deborah occasionally laughs on the show—part-cackle, part-snort—the fabric of TV comedy seems to joyfully realign. Not three years ago, Smart was giving interviews about ageism and the dearth of even supporting roles in movies for women her age. Hacks is her long-overdue combustion.

And yet, not content with starring in one hit HBO show, Smart is also playing Kate Winslet’s stalwart, needling, Fruit Ninja–addicted mother, Helen, on Mare of Easttown. About 18 months ago, as the snappish FBI agent Laurie Blake on HBO’s Watchmen, Smart managed to bring emotional tenderness to a scene in which she unpacked and gently held a colossal, Yves Klein–blue dildo. It is truly the summer of Smart; no one can deny what a blessed thing it is to see a late-career actor give and receive such bounty. If HBO is just repertory theater for her at this point, well, it could be much worse.

The genius of Hacks is how deftly it critiques decades of TV comedy, reminding viewers of what’s missing now (stars of Deborah’s wattage and grace) as much as what’s changed for the better. In the show’s setup, Deborah is a Joan Rivers–esque TV legend whose career third act includes nightly Vegas shows, lucrative appearances opening pizza restaurants and tech retreats, and a crystal-entombed jewelry line for QVC. She’s as rich as a queen, beloved by her grizzled superfans (she calls them her “Little Debbies”), and yet her unwavering ambition occasionally peeps out between regal meet-and-greets and tired punch lines. Hacks positions Deborah at an impasse: She’s hustled and clawed to get to a comfortable, gilded pedestal that’s still not quite as high as greatness.

Deborah’s manager (played by a trenchant Paul Downs, who co-created the show with Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky) pairs her with Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a 25-year-old comedy writer recently canceled for making a controversial joke about a closeted senator. Ava’s as entitled as Deborah is professionally gracious—she shows up at Deborah’s Versailles-themed manse having not even Googled her prospective employer, and, when challenged, spits hostilities at the “Cheesecake Factory” decor and pillows so tasseled even Liberace would cry overkill. “He actually loved it,” Deborah replies, without missing a beat. “He did poppers on that couch in ’85.” The generational contretemps between the Versace-clad grand dame and the caustic Gen Z aspirant wearing what Deborah lambastes as “chimney-sweep boots” seems obviously set to teach both women something hackneyed about life.

The pair end up working together, and working together, but not quite for the reasons the setup suggests. The only thing wrong with Deborah, Hacks quietly puts forward, is her timing. Getting to her lofty status as a woman in comedy required neutering experimentation while sustaining a kind of self-typecasting that now leaves her out of fashion in a moment defined by confessional anti-comedy (Nanette looms large) and subversive storytelling. “They’re not jokes,” a befuddled Deborah tells Ava of the younger writer’s first submitted offerings for her act. “They’re thought poems.” Ava’s schtick—a 25-tweet thread from the point of view of her antidepressant, and a joke that’s just a line about how nightmarish it is to get a voicemail—is defiantly weird and narrow. Deborah’s punch lines are shaped by broader yuck-yuck supply and demand, but also by personal experience—she learned mid-career to lean into the fact that “people would rather laugh at me than believe me.”

Hacks, in that sense, is a kind of correction. In Mare of Easttown, on Sunday nights, you can see Smart elevate the type of roles she’s been playing all her life: tough, offbeat, unexpectedly slapstick (the way she provides her own plosive sound effects while slashing digital fruit with a sword on her iPad has to be seen to be believed), acerbic, subsidiary. She upgrades a minor character because she’s just that good. And yet the show isn’t Helen of Easttown—there are still no prestige dramas framed around popcorn-juggling great-grandmas, no matter how many scenes they steal.

Hacks places Smart in pole position. But the details of Deborah’s story also suggest why it took so long for the actor, and the entertainment industry, to get here. A pilot Deborah taped that would have made her the first female late-night host went unaired. Her sitcom failed after her husband left her for her sister, and her career tanked even further after he subsequently painted her as a psychotic harridan who burned down his house. A court-ordered therapist demanded that Deborah date him before he signed off on her ability to care for her daughter, and then wanted couples therapy when she finally ditched him. (“They always try to get you to do a threesome,” Ava quips, making Deborah cackle-snort.) The show is, finally, star material for a performer who shimmers and pulses with it; it’s also a reminder of how much audiences have been missing all this time.