Read: What HBO’s new crime show gets exactly right
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.”
Read: ‘Nanette’ is a radical, transformative work of comedy
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.