Jean Smart can do anything. In almost half a century on stage and screen, she’s played serial killer Aileen Wuornos and Duchess of Cornwall Camilla Parker Bowles, done Shakespeare, Chekhov and Wilde. From cult films like I Heart Huckabees to hit TV action thrillers like 24, her range appears to approach infinity. And now, at 69 years old, she’s a doyenne of prestige drama, with memorable runs in Watchmen, Fargo, Legion and this spring’s Mare of Easttown. But if Smart has a natural habitat, it might be the sitcom; she got her big break as Charlene in the classic Designing Women and won Emmys for Frasier and Samantha Who? Which makes it extremely gratifying to see her get the late-career lead role she so richly deserves in the very funny, occasionally quite dark showbiz comedy Hacks, premiering May 13 on HBO Max.
Although Smart shares certain attributes with her character, Deborah Vance,—prolificacy, staying power, an origin story that involves a popular sitcom—Deborah is more of a Joan Rivers type. Ensconced in a Las Vegas residency that began sometime in the late 20th century, the brassy, sequin-encrusted comedian flies around in her private plane, hawking bath caddies on QVC and doing silly photo shoots, in between workmanlike standup sets for an audience she describes, not unkindly, as “people from Florida.” Deborah lives in a flashy Vegas mansion, where her only daily companions are paid employees and two dogs for whom she apparently reserves her every ounce of warmth. Her best quality is her remarkable work ethic; her worst is a five-way tie between crankiness, pettiness, self-indulgence, hauteur and, of course, hackery.
Deborah has spent a few decades stuck in this comfortable, if lonely, holding pattern when the owner of the resort where she performs (ubiquitous character actor Christopher McDonald, always a pleasure), who also happens to be her former lover, breaks the news that Pentatonix is taking over her prime weekend stage slots. “I’ve been playing defense my entire career thanks to assholes like you!” she bellows, screaming about bad service and cockroaches in the salad as she storms out of the casino’s restaurant. Then she calls her long-suffering manager, Jimmy (co-creator Paul W. Downs, a.k.a. Broad City’s Trey the trainer), rescuing him from an awful meeting with Ava (rising standup star Hannah Einbinder), a formerly sought-after young comedy writer who’s gotten herself canceled. In a stroke of either genius or madness, Jimmy sends Ava to Vegas to help freshen up Deborah’s act, in an attempt to save both women’s careers.
To 25-year-old Ava, blinded by youth-obsessed Hollywood provincialism, Deborah Vance is nothing more than “the QVC muumuu lady.” For her part, Deborah doesn’t even want to meet Ava. But they have plenty in common—ambition, talent, sick burns—and much to teach one another. What begins as an intergenerational conflict between a wealthy has-been and a broke almost-was, evolves organically (by TV-comedy standards at least) into a satisfying alliance between two lonely, difficult women who’ve been treated unfairly by the entertainment industry. Ava pushes Deborah to draw material from her own fascinating and depressing biography, instead of just recycling generic jokes. Deborah forces Ava to develop some tenacity.
It was shrewd of creators Downs, Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky (all alums of the Broad City writers’ room) to cast a fresh face opposite Smart. Einbinder answers her co-star’s imperious diva with naturalistic post-adolescent angst. Her character could use some refining, though. In a bit of dissonance that might have been eliminated through more consistent directing, the awkward, self-deprecating, most relatable Ava that Einbinder is playing can feel significantly more timid than the wild, unfiltered Ava suggested by the scripts. This isn’t the worst choice for a character who’s still figuring out who she is, but it doesn’t read as entirely purposeful, either.
Still, Hacks has so much going for it that it took me a few episodes to notice the slight imperfection. The supporting cast is packed with wonderful new and familiar talent, including Carl Clemons-Hopkins (soon to be seen in Candyman) as Deborah’s workaholic COO, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia stalwart Kaitlin Olson as her dilettante adult daughter and Poppy Liu (Better Call Saul) as Ava’s blackjack-dealer confidant, along with Downs. The creators have an eye for both the quintessential cruelty of Hollywood and the goofy excesses of the .01%—the multimillion-dollar knickknack collections, the restaurant-quality soda fountains installed in home kitchens, the luxurious plastic-surgery resorts. The dialogue isn’t just funny; it’s faithful to Deborah’s and Ava’s very different senses of humor. “What if first girl band during Salem witch trials but prestige drama?” Ava texts Jimmy while high on multiple substances. (Grammar aside, it’s a pitch I can imagine streaming services fighting over.) In response to news of Vegas naming a street after her, Deborah cracks: “It’ll probably be a dead end with an abortion clinic on it.”
Throughout the six episodes I screened, the core of the show is Smart’s performance, which brings the perfect balance of steeliness and vulnerability. She’s one of few actors who could do justice to every facet of the Rivers archetype—the charismatic comedian, the bitter primadonna, the tireless workhorse and the traumatized Hollywood heel who’s elevated her defense mechanisms into an art form. We’ll have to keep watching to find out whether Deborah seizes her opportunity for a triumphant second act. Meanwhile, the pithy, insightful Hacks offers further confirmation that Smart is living through a career renaissance of her own.
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