HBO Max’s latest series Hacks follows 25-year-old writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) as she tries to get her comedy career back on track after losing her job due to a bad tweet. Her journey takes her to Las Vegas, where she reluctantly starts writing material for Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), a comedy veteran whose life is much like the china she collects: beautiful to behold, but cold and empty within. Deborah fills her life with work due to the absence of a personal life, which she’s eschewed ever since her husband left her for her own sister decades ago.
The show is a traditional odd couple pairing. Ava is bisexual, a Bernie supporter, and a chronic oversharer—in essence, your classic media depiction of a millennial. Deborah is brash, saying whatever she likes regardless of how others feel, and surrounds herself with gaudy opulence. Over the course of the series, they realize just how similar they are. Both of them are career-obsessed, more than a little self-centered, lack a personal life and, in the words of one side character, they’re “both psychotic bitches.”
The six episodes focus on Ava and Deborah getting to know each other and grappling with their different views on comedy, shaped by their generational gap. Deborah uses stand-up as a defense mechanism; it’s a wall she can use to keep others at a distance and a weapon to ward them off if they dare to come too close. Ava sees comedy as a means of healing, a place to be truthful and vulnerable with an audience.
Smart and Einbinder deftly pull off this two-hander thanks to their respective talent and excellent chemistry. Smart is at her peak here, moving from hilarious in one scene to quietly heartbreaking in the next. Deborah can be truly unlikable at certain moments, but Smart plays her with such subtlety and warmth that you still care about her, even though she has live fish pumped into her man-made lake. The series wouldn’t work without Smart’s sensational performance.
Einbinder feels slightly stilted in the first couple of episodes, with certain line deliveries feeling a little canned, but she eventually gets into the groove. She’s at her best when Ava is allowed to be goofy and less composed, leaving behind her L.A. idea of what coolness looks like. At one point she does a cartwheel into the splits, which has big Ilana from Broad City energy (funnily enough, Hacks showrunner Lucia Aniello worked on that beloved show as a writer and producer). There is also a deeply ironic moment where Ava laments “How does everyone have rich parents except for me?” Einbinder’s mother is original Saturday Night Live cast member Laraine Newman. Nepotism aside, Einbinder fits the role of ambitious and messy Ava fairly well.
The supporting cast are also a delightful bunch. Meg Stalter plays the ditzy, unfiltered receptionist Kayla (think Patti Harrison’s character in Shrill, but not as intentionally mean), and Broad City alum Paul W. Downs is Deborah and Ava’s harried manager Jimmy. Carl Clemons-Hopkins is particularly fun to watch as Marcus, Deborah’s head of operations, whose uptightness serves as a great foil to the other characters. He delivers comedic and dramatic moments with equal aplomb. Kaitlin Olson of It’s Always Sunny fame makes a great turn as Deborah’s daughter DJ, who’s just about as messed up as you’d predict.
After a slow start (honestly, though, how many shows nail their beginnings?), the series moves at full tilt as the writers explore dark and unexpected places. With a strong cast and some stellar directorial choices, Hacks is a necessary addition to your summer watch list.
Hacks is now streaming on HBO Max.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, Hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.