‘Hacks’ Is a Thrilling Turn for Jean Smart: TV Review

On her new show “Hacks,” Jean Smart plays a woman who has a difficult time adapting to a new era in the entertainment industry. It may be the first TV role this unbound and thrilling performer has taken that feels like a stretch.

After all, Smart — one of CBS’ “Designing Women” in the 1980s and now a prestige-TV favorite on “Fargo” and “Watchmen” — seems endlessly inquisitive about where her talent can take her. Gifted with exceptional timing and Sahara-dry delivery, Smart is aptly named; there’s a roving intelligence to her line readings, a sense that she’s finding levels of irony and shrewd wit even within the most elegant of scripts. And now, in an HBO Max streaming comedy that seems destined to be a zeitgeist hit, Smart gives a performance entirely without vanity as a woman who has had that fundamental quality of curiosity pushed out of her by show business. The action of the show is wondering whether Smart’s Deborah Vance will take her shot at wrenching it back.

Deborah’s situation is familiar: After “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” this could credibly be said to be the second series about a figure whose life story looks a great deal like that of Joan Rivers. But while “Maisel” considers a comedian’s rise, “Hacks” assesses her uneasy reign. Deborah has a berth in Las Vegas, one she holds on to less by telling innovative jokes than by putting in the hours. She cracks wise about sex with aging men, about her body, about her fans. Like Rivers, she treats no booking as too small or too degrading, including hocking jewelry on home-shopping television; like Rivers, Deborah grew disillusioned after getting, and losing, a shot at a late-night show. Her comedy has become simply about the art of showing up: Her material is time-tested, and for an audience unconcerned with hipness, it works.

That audience is not necessarily growing, though, and isn’t attractive in an industry that increasingly values novelty. That’s how Ava (Hannah Einbinder) enters the series. A young anti-comedian who treats humor as a way to communicate her understanding of the world’s absurdities, Ava loses a Hollywood deal for making a tasteless joke online. She ends up getting hired to write material for Deborah. It should come as no surprise that a star whose work has been intended to claim space for herself looks with skepticism at someone who came up in a radically different industry. And yet Deborah and Ava’s relationship develops with both heart and surprising texture and richness.

That heart comes from both performers: In Deborah, Smart has a lead role worthy of her prodigious intellect and ferocious delivery. It’s apparent from the first that she’s found, in Ava, an adversary worth doing the honor of roasting. Deborah, as the saying goes, kids because she loves, and in Ava, she’s found someone she finds both utterly incoherent and occasionally worthy of the gift of her attention. To wit: Deborah mainly treats her daughter (Kaitlin Olson, brilliant as a lost nepotism case) with benevolent neglect, and barely notices her audiences many nights, delivering familiar and tired material. She extends the same incuriosity to Ava some of the time too. But when her eye happens to land on her young writer frenemy, Deborah is ablaze with a mad creative energy.

Deborah has missed out on opportunities, and defined herself by her resentment. Ava, decades younger, is practically as jaded. Einbinder’s expression of Ava’s insecurities and unease feels jagged-nerve raw. (Lacking a real creative outlet, Ava’s spirals with substances and sex exist, at least at first, in contrast to Deborah’s rigidity.) She’s trapped in a Hollywood that seems much more open to women in general than it was in Deborah’s heyday. That’s all the more galling, because it’s closed to Ava in particular.

“Hacks” is especially sharp and clever on the concept of cool — what it means to observe it from afar and not to have it. (This series is a novel next step for creators Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky, all veterans of “Broad City,” a show that was plainly the product of much hard work but that often wore its brilliance offhandedly.) Nothing about Deborah is casual: She is a punishing employer and has an exaggerated personal aesthetic that requires constant upkeep. The attention to the specifics helps make the case for Deborah’s rigor, and the ways that rigor traps her. We see the painful, demanding recovery from plastic surgery in a midseason episode; we also see a great deal of a fussily decorated mansion, run by a full-time house manager (Carl Clemons-Hopkins, a perfectly pitched wit, joined by an always welcome Rose Abdoo as Deborah’s housekeeper), that comes to seem a bit like a prison.

These dubious rewards stem from a life devoted to work, but Deborah’s ability to work is now under threat: She has turned her misfortunes into a joke, and finds as she becomes a legacy act that her labor hasn’t been enough. And, attempting to restart her own derailed career, Ava seems uncertain of what kind of comedian or even person to be. She’s only working for Deborah because her career ended over a joke she doesn’t defend. When Deborah hears the one-liner for the first time, her instinct — driven by an energy she’s stopped bringing to the stage — is to workshop it, to fight for it and polish it.

It’s this relentlessness that “Hacks” exists to celebrate and to interrogate. Smart shows us the fervor and eagerness in Deborah’s push for the punchline: Trying to take the worst thing that’s ever happened to Ava and make it into art is not what the moment calls for, but when given the right partner, comedy is what Deborah does. This show would not work if Ava did not find something to admire in Deborah. But it’s at its most intriguing when Deborah finds something in Ava — something to pick apart, because Deborah treats analysis as akin to love.

To be a comedian, or any type of artist, is to exist at a remove from one’s own world, to treat it as an object of study rather than as home. “Hacks” asks what it means to do this, and what it means to try to find personal connection within the deeply individual, lonely world of a creative pursuit. Deborah and Ava don’t build whatever relationship they have despite mocking each other. They build it because of that, because they ultimately both love the craft of comedy, the grind of finding the laugh. Both have talent, but neither one is blessed with transcendent natural gifts of the sort Smart herself possesses; the challenge the show presents is that these two must slowly shift each other through the curse and blessing of their devotion to work. This excellent new series successfully argues that there is a virtue all its own in showing up and gutting it out — in being a hack.

“Hacks” premieres May 13 on HBO Max.

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