When HBO Max opened for business last year to much fanfare, the initial rollout and subsequent wake reminded me of this classic from childhood...
Thanks to corporate overlord outsiders calling the shots, it was a rocky begining for the premier streaming brand. But you knew it wouldn't or couldn't last because HBO has been the undisputed king of pay TV for almost 50 fucking years and things quickly improved. An early criticism was about the original content or lack thereof but you don't hear that much anymore, thanks in no small part to "The Flight Attendant". And after watching the first season of "Hacks" with the inimitable Jean Smart, you won't again.
In "Hacks", Smart plays legendary comedian, Vegas institution, and pitch-anything-woman Deborah Vance. Vance's best comp in the real world would be Joan Rivers---groundbreaking and revered but also unhappy and with lots of family drama---but the iconic Rivers serves merely as inspiration here not show fodder. In short time, Vance reluctantly hires L.A. writer/comedian Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a smart, dorkily endearing, occasionally preachy Zoomer to (possibly) write material for her.
Ava was recently "canceled" when one of her old jokes on social media aged into alleged offensiveness but even despite her desperate situation (needing money to pay her mortgage), she also takes the work reluctantly. She begins living in a Vegas hotel room and eating in the employee lunchroom among the dealers and dancers in scenes that take us into Strip bowels typically unseen by the masses. She heads to work at Vance's opulent, staffed mansion that she lives in alone.
A writing and comedy highlight of the show is the intergenerational bickering between the Zoomer and the Boomer (an actual Baby Boomer, not somebody five years older than you who you disagree with). The bull-headed Boomer uses blunt verbal truth. The Zoomer will sometimes give it back. But eventually she lies (and ultimately kicks off a later shitstorm) instead of just telling the truth and experiencing a brief, uncomfortable moment then moving on like adults do. Ava also Monday-morning-quarterbacks Vance on occasion, judging the woman old enough to be her grandmother through a modern lens. However, it's one of these call-outs that triggers one of the most memorable scenes in the series.
Thanks to their own damaged backgrounds and where they are presently in life, Deborah and Ava serve as the other's surrogate mother and surrogate daughter, respectively. Deborah has an acidic, love/hate (mostly hate) relationship with her daughter DJ (an excellent Kaitlin Olson) and is closer with her new writer than her damaged daughter. Olson does a fantastic job of digging into the damaged kid vibes, her clamoring for mother's approval practically jumps off the screen. The character is equal parts funny and sad. Ava has major issues due to what appears to be her mother's mental illness and gets something from Deborah that she can't from her own mother. There's a real pathos to a lot of this show, which is appropriate for one about the
broken souls known as stand-up comedians.
But the rapport between Ava and Deborah is the heartbeat of the show. The final pair of episodes (two were released weekly) reach an emotional level viewers probably did not foresee even an episode before.
In what is her first significant role, Einbinder, the daughter of SNL legend Laraine Newman, is terrific as Ava and a fantastic foil to Smart's seen-it-all legend. As for Smart? This show completes one of the greatest HBO series hat tricks in the history of the net. It started with her turn as Laurie Blake in 2019's prescient masterpiece "Watchmen". Then she went Delco drunk 'n dowdy as Kate Winslet's mom Helen Fahey in the excellent "Mare of Easttown". And then the best of the lot, "Hacks". Smart plays three completely disparate women and absolutey crushes each role.
"Hacks" is smart, funny, engaging stuff that will hit you in ways that you don't expect when you start. I highly recommend it.
"Hacks" is currently streaming on HBOMax.