‘Hacks’ review: tackling sexism and punchlines with acerbic wit, this is one of the year’s best shows
In a sea of shows with identical premises, one can sneak up on you in the best way possible, and such is the case with Hacks, which releases its first 2 episodes of a 10-episode season on HBO Max May 13.
Broad City‘s Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello, and Jen Statsky have created an edgy show that provides us a snapshot of the male-centric and social media-driven nature of entertainment. If anyone had any doubt that women had a tougher time making it in Hollywood, this show should erase that.
Hacks centers around legendary Las Vegas stand up comedy entertainer Deborah Vance (3-time Emmy winner Jean Smart), who is struggling to maintain all of her dates at a casino she’s headlined for years. When the owner (played by Christopher McDonald) informs Vance that her dates are now being cut to make room for the younger, hipper music group Pentatonix. In a male-dominated business where she’s climbed the mountain of inherent sexism, she now faces ageism (still closely tied to sexism in this industry) and whether she’ll take the news or find a way to freshen up her act. Enter 25-year-old comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder, daughter of original SNL cast member Laraine Newman), struggling to recover after losing her writing deal because of a tweet she posted that was deemed offensive in the era of cancel culture. It’s either take whatever job she can or lose everything. Eventually, their agent realizes these two could help one another and tricks them into a meeting that goes horribly wrong. Deborah has massive trust issues, and Ava thinks that everything is beneath her. To say that these two are an odd couple would be an understatement.
The show elevates when Ava digs into how Deborah had to struggle even to get where she is today. Sometimes that even involved refusing to acknowledge the truth to appease the masses. When Vance found that her husband had been cheating on her, it nearly broke her. Finding out that he was stepping out on Deborah with her sister made it so much worse. She had attempted to balance family and a career, and it led to this.
To make matters worse, their home ends up burning down in a fire caused by their dryer, but he ends up blaming Deborah, which everyone believed because Vance ended up turning it into a bit for her act. She allows others to dictate the truth no matter how much pain it caused her. For Deborah, being on stage and in the spotlight is all she knows. Never mind being a mother; this is who she is.
While Ava is initially brought on to help punch up her old material, it becomes quickly apparent that her purpose is to help Vance see that her journey is what is most appealing and not her dirty jokes. Acknowledging who she is to the world will help her move forward. This process goes both ways, though; Ava must stop blaming the world for her mistake and accept what occurred.
Smart and Einbinder have tremendous chemistry together. Einbinder’s Ava is acerbic, entitled, and shows just enough vulnerability. Smart knocks it out of the park as Deborah Vance. Her performance is so balanced and rich that it’s easily one of the best of her career. One minute she is dropping f-bombs and destroying iPads, and the next we see her admit that she’s well aware of her daughter’s scheme to sell pictures of her to TMZ.
While critics were only given the first 6 episodes of the season, we get a taste of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Kaitlin Olson, who plays Deborah’s daughter, and she is terrific. What’s intriguing is this a role we don’t typically see the star of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in, so it shows off her versatility as a performer. Hacks is a classic example of how great writing can elevate a show but mix that with wonderful performances, and the result is an extraordinary show.
Hacks premieres its first two episodes of the season on May 13 on HBO Max then two new episodes weekly every Thursday.
Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max