Hacks begins with past-her-prime Las Vegas stand-up Deborah Vance unleashing a crass sex joke about an ungenerous lover who won’t take his shirt off in bed because, in her telling, his breasts are larger than hers.
That wisecrack’s real payoff happens a half hour later, though, as the second episode opens with Vance confronting Marty, the casino owner who wants to cut her performances so he can bring in new, younger acts. Vance caps off their acid exchange with a promise to never fuck him “again” and a winking retort directed at Marty’s masseuse — and to us: “He leaves his t-shirt on, you know.”
Hacks is the sort of comedy that demands your close attention because it knows great humor depends on the details and the build-up. How fortunate then that the new series has as one of its stars the riveting presence of Jean Smart, an HBO favorite these days between her star turns in Watchmen and Mare of Easttown.
The show’s setup pitches Vance as a comedy legend with a tabloid-feeding reputation who’s carved out a place for herself as a prolific Vegas entertainer. She was a TV star in the ’70s who famously burned down her ex-husband’s home — a detail that is quickly glossed over several times in the opening pair of episodes, perhaps to set up another future punchline — and now she’s the Strip’s most frequent performer.
The problem is, her act isn’t what it used to be. We don’t get the full picture of why that is in the show’s first hour, but it’s repeatedly suggested that her heart may not be in it anymore. Even with no further answers, though, it’s definitely not that simple. There’s complexity beneath Vance’s diva veneer. It’s a depth we start to see as the show introduces her to Ava (Hannah Einbinder).
Ava is a young comedy writer who’s dealing with the career fallout after an ill-advised tweet gets her internet-canceled. She’s radioactive, no one wants to work with her. But she and Vance have a connection in their shared manager, Jimmy (Paul W. Downs, also a Hacks co-creator). He’s too busy for either of them, so he decides to make them each other’s problem. Vance is struggling with a stale act and Ava needs a job writing comedy. Perfect?
Not so much. The opening episode of Hacks is pure setup, and it seems clear right away that the two women are operating on different wavelengths. Ava is a young and outspoken child of the internet who is so self-absorbed that her momentary cancelation becomes a cataclysmic career death. She has the capacity to recognize the big picture and see her place in it — an important asset for any comic — but it’s a rough and unformed skill that is constantly undermined by her own sensitivity.
Vance wants nothing to do with her, but she also sees…something there. So she takes Ava on for what is ostensibly a writing gig. But Vance is also her own special kind of self-absorbed, too, and she apparently has a different idea of what this job will be for Ava. It’s not a spoiler to say that the two women have much more in common than their first encounter suggests.
Two episodes in, Hacks shows promise as a comedy with a mean-spirited exterior but perhaps a more wholesome heart. It’s walking that line carefully in the opening stretch of episodes, serving up a central relationship that is fueled by sharply funny antagonism blended with a weird and unexpected strain of mutual respect.
Less clear in the show’s early stages is how the supporting cast will shape Ava’s relationship with Vance. Marty, played by Christopher McDonald (Shooter McGavin of Happy Gilmore fame!), has very little to do as we’re starting out — he’s mostly a foil to Vance who helps us understand her better — but McDonald is a talented performer and he’s positioned to eventually take on an outsized role in this story.
Image: Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max
Also underserved in the opening hour is Kaitlin Olson, of It’s Always Sunny fame, who plays Vance’s daughter Jocelyn. There’s surely more to come there, with her single scene setting Jocelyn up as a grown woman who lives with mommy, goodbye kiss and all as she’s leaving the house. She seems to have a drug problem, too, but the suggestion at least is that her home life is more a product of privilege than of being in recovery. We’ll have to wait and see how that develops.
Downs, on the other hand, is an immediate riot. He comes off as a guy who has Hollywood shark sensibilities a la Ari Gold from Entourage, but his demeanor is calm and detached, and it’s rooted more in cutting passive aggression. He repeatedly torches his two problem clients without them fully realizing it and we cheer for him the whole time because, dick or not, he’s kinda right.
He’s also given a boost in every one of his scenes by Megan Stalter, the blisteringly funny online comic who has a knack for going viral. Stalter plays Jimmy’s questionably helpful assistant, Kayla. It’s a fairly one-note role so far, but it’s funny all the same. Also, these HBO shows have a way of turning our first impressions around. Considering the strength of Hacks‘ two leads already, Kayla could well show more depth soon enough.
The series kickoff benefits most of all, though, from an immediate focus on Smart, whose electric presence on screen here already has her verging on a hat trick trio of wins for HBO. But Einbinder is similarly excellent, with a performance reminiscent of Sarah Goldberg’s Emmy-nominated role in Barry. She’s tough and outspoken, but also uncertain and plagued by a deep-down sense of inadequacy. And that’s just what the show makes evident in the first hour.
As starting points go, Hacks really nails it. But don’t forget where this all began: The man-breasts joke is funny in a stage comic kind of way, but “He leaves his t-shirt on, you know” is where the laughs really land. If that delayed gratification kind of mindset is also the driving force behind Hacks as a whole, then the best is yet to come.
Hacks is streaming on HBO Max, with two new episodes each Thursday.