Jean Smart Brings Viciously Fun Wit to HBO Max’s Fabulous ‘Hacks’

Every true artist should study the masters. It’s a simple fact of the game. For every great painter, filmmaker, musician, there was someone who came before. HBO Max’s “Hacks” explores that dynamic between a veteran and newcomer, thrown together by circumstance into a battle of wits that transforms into something more endearing. Its great highlight is Jean Smart being placed front and center, clearly having a good time playing a character that gives off experience and boundless energy. 

Smart is Deborah Vance, a comedic legend now relegated to doing a residency at a Las Vegas casino. Vance is popular with the vacationing retirees, but the casino’s owner, Marty (Christopher McDonald) wants to attract a new kind of crowd. He concludes Vance probably needs someone to write her new material that can tap into fresher audiences. The best candidate is Ava (Hannah Einbinder), who is 25 but currently exiled by cancel culture after making a post commenting on a senator’s son coming out of the closet. Ava’s agent pushes her to take the gig but she’s cocky and self-assured, not convinced she needs to work for an older comedian from another era. But the truth is she needs the job and soon Ava is in Vegas, meeting Vance. What follows is an initial clash of generations and sensibilities, but both soon start feeding off each other’s wits as well.

“Hacks” may be billed as a show about comedians, but it has a much richer subtext. The material is really about the way everything is shifting generationally in terms of how we behave and see the world. Smart and Einbinder have fantastic chemistry that also stems from the stubborn clash between a seen-it-all and a know-it-all. When they first meet Vance can’t help but make rude, snapping comments when it becomes obvious Ava hasn’t really looked at any of her material. When they do discuss what jokes to write, Ava spews lots of Millennial/Gen-Z philosophy, even dismissing the need for a joke to have a punchline because it’s such a male thing (“always thinking about the ending”). While Vance likes to bite but with old-school classiness, Ava is a provocateur who shocks the older comic with a detailed explanation about how she’s bisexual, complete with graphic commentary about liking penises. Of course Vance is so brilliant she can one up all her jokes, to the point where both riff on how to best poke fun at the senator with the gay son that got Ava into so much trouble.

With a brisk running time of 30 mins, each episode of “Hacks” gives equal space to the comedy and the dramatic growth of the characters. It’s not some rehash of the same old story about an older person who learns to be young again through a protégé. Vance knows she’s a legend and Smart plays her as such. Instead the story becomes about how we grow in unexpected ways. When Vance tasks Ava with digitizing her archive, Ava scoffs but when she digs into the old film and TV clips, she can’t help but admire Vance’s natural talent. “Hacks” is a comedy about the hard work of making comedy. Writing a good joke is as challenging as spinning magnificent dialogue for a screenplay. It’s also about the equally difficult task of staying in a good spot in life. Once Ava realizes she can’t get employed, friends suddenly can’t lend a hand, one cruelly pointing out that Ava never even talked to her until she had a show. For Vance the times are getting just as challenging simply because of ageism. She lives in a grand mansion that gives off a glow of Las Vegas decadence, but has to take any gig, including $50,000 to MC some retreat, or tell jokes on a Vegas tour bus. Both women are strong-willed and intimidating in their own way. Vance pokes at Ava for sending a nude selfie to an ex-girlfriend using the excuse of having sexual autonomy, and then tells a cruel joke about the incident on one of those Vegas tours. Anyone who has ever been the assistant of some powerful talent or bigger than life personality will instantly relate to much of this show.

“Hacks” will be most notable however, for the magnificent performance by Jean Smart, who plays the role with an almost carefree spirit. She banters with friendly ambiance but then fights with the regulator demanding she take it easy on how much water she’s using on her premises. She can charm and bite. It’s a testament to Smart’s skills that she does this role in the same season that she plays a silently despairing mother in another HBO production, “Mare of Easttown.” But in that limited series she was also kept in her usual role of a supporting character. In “Hacks” Smart is the main attraction and devours the screen for all its worth, from the opening scenes when she’s walking onstage under glistening Vegas lights to arguing with Ava in some arid Nevada desert. Shows about such personas tend to either take the underdog route or the angle of someone seeing fame slip away. “Hacks” is about two successful people at different points in life who nonetheless, are brought together by uncomfortable circumstances. It’s hilarious and sassy, but with lots of heart.

Hacks” season one begins streaming May 13 with new episodes premiering Thursdays on HBO Max.