On Television
June 14, 2021 Issue
“Hacks” Pits Zoomer Against Boomer
It’s Carhartt versus caftan in this HBO Max series, which depicts a generational war between a young TV writer and a Las Vegas standup legend, played by Jean Smart.
By Doreen St. Félix
June 7, 2021
Jean Smart plays a Joan Rivers-esque comic who battles with a Gen Z upstart.Illustration by Claire Merchlinsky
“Hacks,” on HBO Max, is a comedy about comedy—a chilling proposition, in 2021. There is a loud species of comic who has no muse but grievance politics, who makes the stage a bully pulpit. One even nabbed the Presidency. The pilot episode of “Hacks” gets its source material from the culture war. When we meet Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a bisexual television writer in Los Angeles, she is pouting intensely. She has landed herself in hot water by tweeting a rude joke about a right-wing politician and his gay son; it’s a setup so familiar that no one even needs to use the term “cancelled.” Ava’s a hot shot in her twenties with a mortgage, so the blow to her ego and her wallet is a kind of hell. Her agent, Jimmy (Paul W. Downs), concocts a purgatory: Ava will help modernize the act of another client of his, Deborah Vance (Jean Smart, who, given her recent roles in “Watchmen” and “Mare of Easttown,” is running HBO), a Las Vegas standup legend, whose longtime gig at the Palmetto is threatened by a new guard of E.D.M. d.j.s and a-cappella groups. Ava is skeptical, but she agrees to a preliminary meeting.
“Hacks” was created by Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello, and Downs, all writers on “Broad City.” The show plays as a minor-key coda to that rowdy feminist comedy, which shed some of its yas-girl stoner politicking after Hillary Clinton lost the election. With “Hacks,” the angst is up front, right there in the title: here is a society where women are alone, and where they lose even when they win.
When Ava and Deborah meet, they instantly hate each other. Deborah is put off by Ava’s bland niceties, and Ava, growing impatient with Deborah’s curt entitlement, snaps, “I’d rather sling Bang-Bang Chicken and Shrimp all day than work here!” Intrigued by her gall, Deborah hires her, and at this point “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.
The symmetries between Ava and Deborah are neat. They both have strained relationships with their families, a history of failed romances, and a propensity for judgment and cruelty. And so the generational war between the Zoomer and the Boomer is heated by mutual recognition. These two ideologues have wildly different visions of what comedy can sound like and achieve. Ava is the newbie dadaist, arguing that punch lines are vestiges of a traditional joke structure that is “very male.” She’s partial to the arch and hostile Mitch Hedberg-style one-liner (e.g., “I had a horrible nightmare that I got a voice mail”). Deborah, like Freud, believes in jokes as discrete architectural objects, daggers that poke at the collective subconscious. Ava digs at Deborah for making wisecracks with mass appeal—jokes for the “Panera people.” Deborah replies, “So you’re telling me that, if a lot of people think something is funny, it’s not.”
The dialogue, in these early episodes, can be too niche, too meta-referential, too obsessed with the trade. “Hacks” is not a joke machine; the later episodes are downright melancholic. You laugh, but not hysterically. The scenes of Deborah’s standup routine at the Palmetto have a surreal quality. They exist not to amuse but to catch a woman in the paradoxical situation of exposure and opacity, control and vulnerability. Ava’s laughter tends to be mocking, until she starts cataloguing Deborah’s archive, which includes an unaired pilot for a nighttime talk show, shot decades earlier. We see a youthful Deborah as the host, digitally de-aged, in what is maybe the first use of that technology that feels soulful. Back then, Deborah was a newcomer, a feminist trailblazer in a male-dominated form.
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“Hacks” subtly recasts the past half century of American comedy as a warped matriarchy, through which we can chart the evolution of the “woman’s voice.” Before Ava started working for Deborah, her knowledge of the older comedian had been passing, uninterrogated. Ava knew her as the brassy broad with a QVC deal, a paragon of shamelessness who notoriously burned down the house of her ex-husband, another well-known comic. It’s Deborah’s most famous joke, and it has also cast a shadow over her career. When Deborah offhandedly reveals to Ava that the house actually burned down in an accident, Ava balks. Deborah’s explanation? When she experimented with the joke at a gig, “it killed,” she says, her eyes brightening. If it killed something else inside her, then that was a price she was willing to pay.
Ava grows enamored of her boss. She pushes Deborah to embrace a more confessional style of standup, and to showcase her suffering, which she’d hidden in a persona. This is the hook of “Hacks”—how Smart inhabits a character who does not want to be known. The blond bouffant, the sinuous caftans, and the acid tongue are a tribute to Joan Rivers, and certain plot points are virtually identical to details from Rivers’s life. The scenes of Deborah at a spa, recovering from a routine nip and tuck, brought to mind Phyllis Diller, who was revolutionarily transparent about her own cosmetic procedures. We can also intuit Lily Tomlin and other giants in Smart’s performance, a haunting, confrontational portrait of the twentieth-century woman who had to scrounge for liberation on her own terms. Ava, on the other hand, hasn’t been given a real history. Clunking around in a Carhartt jacket and Doc Martens, alienating her careerist peers and her sweet Midwestern parents, her character comes across as an extended satire of the Zillennial bourgeoisie. It’s not convincing that this person would force an awakening in someone like Deborah. But Einbinder works hard to match Smart, and, at moments, seeing them get into grooves of compassion, I felt myself flush.
The rest of the cast, by the way, also kills. Christopher McDonald is perfect as Marty, the operator of the Palmetto, a handsome sleaze who makes Deborah lose her composure. And Carl Clemons-Hopkins, who plays Marcus, Deborah’s consigliere, gives solidity to the questions of race and wealth that inevitably arise when a gay Black man devotes himself to an older white woman. Then again, anyone would glow in Smart’s presence. She generates her own light.
Like “Hacks,” “Girls5eva,” on Peacock, rubbernecks at a bygone phenomenon: nineties pop stardom. The members of a one-hit-wonder girl group are roused from dormancy when a rapper named Lil Stinker samples their signature track. After this second brush with fame, the ladies decide to reunite, abandoning their dissatisfying lives in order to write the perfect hit. Created by Meredith Scardino, a writer for “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and executive-produced by Tina Fey, “Girls5eva” is spawned from the Fey model: accessibly absurdist, riddled with clever zingers, thick with critique. The cast makes this a fun binge. Renée Elise Goldsberry brings Broadway largesse to the character of Wickie, the defeated diva with the unbowed voice. Her foil is Dawn (Sara Bareilles), the Liz Lemon of the operation—a mom from Queens eager to prove herself as a songwriter. Paula Pell blesses us with Gloria, a lovesick lesbian dentist, and Busy Philipps does her best as Summer, the simple-minded Christian wife. We’ve also got a Swedish Svengali, a debased manager, and a boy-band martyr, in performances by Stephen Colbert, Jonathan Hadary, and Andrew Rannells.
You stick through the stumbles of “Hacks” because it’s energizing to watch the show’s creators pay tribute to a form that they revere. “Girls5eva” doesn’t think too highly of pop; the series does a good job of reckoning with the turn-of-the-century misogyny that fuelled Y2K pop music, but it’s not so interested in exploring what made this music transcendent. If “TRL” was poison, then why did a generation drink it up? What “Girls5eva” truly pines for is the reign of prime-time Fey. In the flashbacks to the short-lived heyday of the group, there is a pompous atonality to the satirical lyrics. (“Love watchin’ standup, but not by women,” they sing, in a tune called “Dream Girlfriends.”) And then there is the character of Summer. She is the Britney Spears analogue, the sweet and stunted adult—which means she should be the heart of the story, right? Not so. “Free Britney,” the singers pledge, in one scene, right before Summer leads them in practicing their “Britney scales.” They launch into a parody of the sexy-robot-baby voice. It’s a cheap laugh. ♦
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Published in the print edition of the June 14, 2021, issue, with the headline “Remember When?.”
Doreen St. Félix has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2017 and was named the magazine’s television critic in 2019.
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