The Marriage Plot for the Age of Workism

The HBO show Hacks, like several other recent works, explores the particular intimacies of professional relationships—and expands what it means to be a couple.

An illustration of two women against a warm yellow background. They gaze at each other over a distance.
HBO Max; The Atlantic

A scene midway through Hacks finds the show’s protagonists, Deborah and Ava, in bed together—but not in bed together. The two comedians, one in her 70s and the other in her 20s, are chatting on the phone late one evening, Ava from her Las Vegas hotel room and Deborah from her Vegas mansion. Both are watching Law & Order: Criminal Intent. “I think I could play a dead body,” Ava muses. “Well, you certainly have the complexion,” Deborah murmurs in reply. They chuckle. Burns, in this relationship, are a form of tenderness.

If the scene seems familiar, that might be because it is an ironized version of the famous scene between Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally—which was itself a riff on the famous scene between Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in Indiscreet: the phone, the night, the interplay of intimacy and distance. The scenes all do elegant narrative work. They make clear that these people who are separate would rather be together. The difference is the means of the togetherness. In the earlier versions, the desire is romantic. Hacks’s version is more complicated—and only in part because Deborah and Ava aren’t interested in each other romantically. Deborah is Ava’s boss; that complexity is awkward, and also the point. Hacks, like several other recent works, expands the notion of what it means to be a couple in the first place.

The women of Hacks come together because they both need something from each other professionally. Deborah, a pioneering comedian in the Joan Rivers vein, has stalled in her career: A Vegas residency that finds her performing the same set, show after show, has brought her wild wealth and creative stagnation. Ava is an up-and-coming comedic writer who, because of an offensive tweet she posted, has been rejected by the Hollywood establishment. The two share an agent who suggests, in a flash of insightful desperation, that Deborah hire Ava as a writer. His pitch is that Ava might help Deborah punch up her stale act. His broader idea, though, doubles as the premise of the show: that both women, the Boomer and the Zoomer, might have something to teach each other—about writing, about comedy, about life.

Hacks, which recently concluded its first season on HBO Max, defies genre. Alternately dark and light in its humor, the show is sometimes a bleak psychodrama, sometimes a lively satire of the entertainment industry, sometimes an intergenerational character study, sometimes a classic workplace comedy. It is also, at times, a rom-com. Hacks takes the familiar tropes of that genre—meet-cutes, misunderstandings, grand gestures—and applies them to a professional partnership. It is a comedy that is asking serious questions about where, and how, people might find fulfillment in their life. Hacks takes a fusty old standby, the marriage plot, and gives it a timely new twist: It is a rom-com that is dedicated to the romance of work.

Deborah and Ava, having met cute through their manager’s orchestrated twist of fate, develop a relationship that proceeds exactly as you’d expect a rom-com to: First the two resent each other, and then they grudgingly accept each other, and then they come to respect each other, and finally they come to need each other. Is a misunderstanding resolved when one character makes a splashy gesture to prove her affection for the other? You bet. But the rom-comic nods in Hacks can be subtler, and more poignant, too. Deborah spends a few days at a ritzy plastic-surgery spa, for an eye lift, and brings Ava so that they can spend the recovery time working on new material. Having had surgery, Deborah needs a constant companion—even when she uses the bathroom. Neither woman is enthused about this imposed togetherness. The show’s camera lingers on the result of their compromise: The younger woman and the older, the one outside the bathroom and the other inside, lightly holding each other’s hand.

The image is a tidy encapsulation of Hacks. It is mordant. It is subtle. It is sweet. It understands how many ways there are for people to be coupled. Hacks is part of a revival of shows that apply the tropes of the rom-com to the possibilities of nonsexual relationships. Some of the shows do that with friendship, among them Insecure, Broad City, and PEN15. Others offer that reclamation for family relationships. Maleficent, a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, reimagines the transformational capabilities of “true love’s kiss” as familial rather than romantic. Jane the Virgin, a telenovela with an abiding interest in the twists and turns of romance, dedicates much of its attention to the complicated relationship between Jane and her mother. Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film, takes one of the most enduring clichés of the rom-com—chasing the object of one’s affections to an airport—and applies it to a mother chasing her daughter, wanting to tell her that she loves her before it’s too late.

Hacks is operating in that tradition. But it is also broadening things beyond the philia and the pragma and the eros to explore a different kind of love: the love of one’s work, and the meaning that might derive from work. Its complications are, in that sense, insightful. What are Deborah and Ava to each other, exactly? They are an employer and an employee. And also a mentor and a mentee. And, eventually, friends. And, eventually, frenemies. And, eventually, something that starts to look like family. The show understands how possible it is for them to be all of those things to each other, all at once. At one point, Ava has a sex dream about Deborah. She wonders, with soft panic, what the dream means—a crush on her mentorfriendboss?—until she realizes that the dream means something simpler: Ava is not used to being so close to another person. She is used to being guarded. With Deborah, she is letting her guard down. With this person who understands her professional aspirations, Ava has found another version of intimacy.

Ava and Deborah peer at a computer together in 'Hacks'

At the heart of Deborah and Ava’s closeness is the professional creativity that brought them together in the first place. The two are artists, the show suggests, and it takes an artist to recognize those impulses in another. Throughout the show, the women’s insults of each other serve their intimacy. Their mutual burns are evidence of each other’s talents as a comedian; they are also, however, reminders that the women share a quintessentially writerly approach to life’s tragedies and vagaries: Everything is copy.

To watch Hacks is to be reminded, at times, of The Devil Wears Prada, another work that explores the possibilities, and limits, of professional fulfillment. But Andy’s job, in the movie, hinders her romantic relationship, and her romantic relationship hinders her creative ambitions. The same dynamic is at play in 30 Rock, a sitcom with much to say about the wayward paths of romance. That show’s primary anxiety was that Liz Lemon would be hindered in her personal life precisely because of her dedication to her professional life. “You’re never gonna get married, Liz. You’re married to your job,” Rosemary, a pioneering TV writer and one of Liz’s heroes, tells her in a Season 2 episode. Liz is horrified. She also spends several more seasons of the show proving Rosemary right.

All these years later, is “You’re married to your job” the searing insult that Liz thinks it is? That’s one of the questions Hacks is asking as it offers its assorted tragicomedies. Marcus, Deborah’s longtime friend and employee, struggles to balance his desires for a personal life with the demands of the woman who is the source of his livelihood. (The relationship Marcus develops with Wilson, the water-maintenance official whom he meets in the course of his work for Deborah—and with whom he has an all-time-great meet-cute—is the closest Hacks gets to a classic rom-com.) For the most part, though, Hacks eschews the notion of work-life balance for something more muddled: Through the central relationship of Deborah and Ava, the show suggests that meaningful balance is impossible. For the two women, work is life, and vice versa. They long ago stopped trying to draw bright lines between the one and the other. Work, here, is the object of desire, the subject of its protagonists’ passion.

Work as a form of romance is also the theme of The Bold Type, the magazine-industry soap opera that aired for five seasons on Freeform and recently aired its finale. The show, set at and around a Cosmopolitan-style magazine, is a workplace dramedy. It is deeply invested in its three main characters’ careers, which it invests with the emotional intensity of romance. The Bold Type is a show that will find a character declaring, without an ounce of irony, “I do love myself. But I love my job even more.” It is a show that finds a manager offering a promotion to her employee using language that could also work as a proposal. (“Yes. Yes! I’ve been dreaming of this my whole life!” the giddy promotee replies.)

“Sutton, is this job important to you?” a character’s boss asks her. Her answer is instant. “Oliver,” she replies. “Yes. This job is everything to me.”

My colleague Derek Thompson talks about workism, a habit of mind that treats work as the centerpiece of one’s identity—and professional fulfillment as a central source of life’s meaning. The Bold Type is a pop-cultural artifact of workism. So is the 2015 Nancy Meyers comedic film The Intern, about a 70-year-old man (Robert De Niro) who gets a postretirement job working for a 30-something woman (Anne Hathaway). The film’s opening line is a voice-over from Ben, De Niro’s character: “Freud said, ‘Love and work. Work and love. That’s all there is.’”

You might think that this declaration is being summoned so that its easy essentialisms can be rejected by the film to come. You would be wrong. The Intern is a breezy movie that is dedicated to the notion that work is love, and vice versa. Over the course of the film, Ben and Hathaway’s character, Jules, become friends as well as colleagues. (“Intern slash best friend,” Jules classifies him, tearfully, at the movie’s emotional climax.) One of its subsidiary love stories here concerns the relationship between Jules and the company she founded, an e-commerce site that she micromanages with intensive devotion. Jules does not, in the end, chase her start-up to the airport to declare her love for it. She comes pretty close, though. And The Intern applies will-they-won’t-they tensions to anxieties about work-life balance: Will Jules sacrifice some of her professional ambition to spend more time with her husband, her daughter, her intern slash best friend? Will she compromise? Should she?

The Intern already reads as a relic. It is an amber-frozen specimen of an American cultural moment that is often unsure what to make of the restive romance of work. The film resists the idea that work is everything, the sum of one’s identity and purpose, but also endorses it. Its confusions are accidentally eloquent. Rom-coms can be revealing. They make assumptions about the proper outlets of people’s passion and pathos and love. They channel what a culture writ large thinks people should care most about. For a long time, Hollywood treated romantic love as the best and truest and most obvious avenue for that passion. It still does. But its vision is widening. It is offering up shows like Hacks, which treats workism not as an anxiety, but rather as a foregone conclusion. What does work provide? What might it foreclose? The show doesn’t try to answer. What it assumes, though, is that those questions are up for negotiation. “You can’t quit. You’re too good,” Deborah tells Ava, in the show’s climactic finale. It might as well be a declaration of love.