Hacks casts resurgent Jean Smart in a comedy of generational conflict, gender politics and odd-couple friendship
For months, one show had left Australian small screen aficionados tearing out our hair in desperation, screaming into the Twittersphere: Where is Hacks?
The HBO Max comedy drama was released in the US in May and has a whopping 15 Emmy nominations, vying for Outstanding Comedy Series as well as writing, directing, lead and supporting actors awards in the ceremony on September 20 (broadcast in Australia on Foxtel).
After a seemingly interminable wait through innumerable lockdowns, all 10 episodes of Hacks are now available to stream on Stan. They are well worth the wait.
Who are these Hacks?
One of the 'hacks' in question is stand-up comedy legend Deborah Vance (Jean Smart). But perhaps the real hack is the down-on-her-luck young TV writer Ava (played by newcomer comedian Hannah Einbinder) who begrudgingly takes a gig writing for Deb.
Deb is a trailblazer for women in comedy (think Joan Rivers) but is better known these days for her home shopping network appearances. She only takes Ava on after casino CEO Marty (Christopher McDonald) threatens to cut down the dates of her long-term Las Vegas residency.
At Deb's gaudy Vegas mansion, the two comedians immediately spar — but as their relationship progresses, they uncover the traumas that lie beneath each other's often brutal sense of humour.
Hacks' cast of supporting characters includes Deb's inner circle — her bratty in-recovery daughter DJ (Kaitlin Olson), Chief Operating Officer Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) and personal blackjack dealer Kiki (Poppy Liu) — who are inevitably drawn into the comedians' often volatile burgeoning friendship.
What's this 'Jeanaissance'?
An accomplished stage actor, Smart first rose to TV fame in the 80s on the groundbreaking sitcom Designing Women. In the 2000s, she picked up Emmys for roles in Frasier and Samantha Who?
Prestige TV lovers will also remember Smart's performance as the badass matriarch of a crime family in the second season of Fargo, in 2015.
In an interview in The New Yorker, the veteran actor weighed in: "I had a weird dry spell after Fargo," but then added: "Come on, I've been here [all along]."
What hack came up with Hacks?
You might recognise Broad City actor Paul W. Downs, who plays Deborah and Ava's agent Jimmy in Hacks.
Downs and Broad City writing alumni Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky created Hacks (the team's other writing credits include Time Traveling Bong, Rough Night, The Good Place and Parks and Recreation).
Michael Schur (who co-created Parks and Recreation, The Good Place and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) is an executive producer for the show.
A comedy about comedy, this all feels a bit inside baseball…
Hacks is about comedy and comedians, but there's more to it.
As Doreen St. Félix writes in her review in The New Yorker: "Hacks opens up into something more than an indulgent inquiry into the state of comedy. It's a look at the soul of the artist: what truths she is able to speak, and what she forces herself to repress."
As co-creator Aniello told Vanity Fair: "We made a show that is about how hard it is for women in the arts, and how often they are passed aside and how, so often, mediocre white men are able to have these incredibly long careers."
Stop Everything!'s Ben Law says: "It's a classic generational conflict: zoomer vs boomer. Who will win when it comes to these perspectives and their [differing] attitudes towards how to achieve in comedy?"
"You've got this woman [Deb] who has lived through it all, has survived this industry, who is decidedly non-PC … against this young woman [Ava] who is all about principle, all about so-called woke politics.
What's the critical verdict?
Hacks is currently sitting at a "100% Fresh" critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
In a review that situates Hacks as a comedy of work and a rom-com, Megan Garber in The Atlantic writes: "It is mordant. It is subtle. It is sweet. It understands how many ways there are for people to be coupled."
Patrick Lenton in Junkee writes: "Deborah Vance and Ava are connected by a shared ethos around comedy, and Hacks manifests that by taking a relatively simple premise — an odd couple, with a generational divide — and elevating the punchline beyond the obvious."
While St. Félix in The New Yorker praises Smart's performance and character, she writes: "Ava, on the other hand, hasn't been given a real history … her character comes across as an extended satire of the Zillennial bourgeoisie."
So which Emmys will Hacks walk away with?
With last year's Emmy darling Schitt's Creek now concluded, the comedy awards are wide open.
While Jean Smart will be very hard to beat in the Lead Actress in a Comedy Series category, co-stars Carl Clemons-Hopkins and Hannah Einbinder, nominated in the Supporting Actor and Actress in a Comedy Series categories respectively, are less of a sure thing. They would have to fight off multiple nominations from Saturday Night Live and Ted Lasso cast members to take home the gold.
In terms of Outstanding Comedy Series, Hacks certainly has a shot — but faces stiff competition in Ted Lasso.
OK, I've binged it all (I'm in lockdown), what now?
While we wait for the second season of Hacks (which will probably come out mid-2022), why not try Feel Good (Netflix) — another blistering series about a comedian that will make you laugh and cry in the same breath.
Then there's Crashing (Binge), where creator/star Pete Holmes attempts to make it as a stand-up in New York — as a Christian comic. Like Hacks, it explores the tensions around who has power in comedy and who is the butt of the joke.
It also might be time to watch PEN15 (Stan), an overlooked coming-of-age dramedy with a twist (the adult creators play fictionalised versions of their 13-year-old selves … trust us, it works), which also rides that line between comedy and tragedy that Hacks does so masterfully.
If you're looking for something gentler and more decidedly in the rom-com territory, we recommend Rose Matafeo's Starstruck (ABC iview).