Created by Lucia Aniello & Paul W. Downs & Jen Stasky,
Original Air Date: 13th May 2001 – 10th June 2021
Jean Smart. Apologies, but this review is beginning with the most obvious thing to say about Hacks. From her Emmy-nominated work on 24, to stealing every scene in Mare of Easttown, Smart has always been one of those screen presences who, even if the series you’re watching is already brilliant, elevates everything that little bit more just by simply showing up.
Hacks knows this right away and fashions so many scenes and moments that play in the realm of funny, bitter and emotionally insightful that the actress plays to absolute perfection throughout, but everything and everyone around her is more than enough reason to go along with it too.
What makes this first season an incredibly satisfying watch is how it lays down on the table so many targets that it wants to explore and then proceeds to use the ten episodes at its disposal to get into the gutter with each and every one of them.
At its heart, one of the main themes the series wants to twist and turn and look at is the generational gap within the realm of comedy. The double-act that is the centre piece of so much of the storytelling is the relationship between Smart’s character Deborah Vance and that of Ava, played by Hannah Einbinder, both from very differing generations, both having made their names in comedy during differing technological eras and when the cultural conversations were driven through ways that couldn’t be more different, and yet as women they are confronted by the same brick walls that want to tear them down.
There is a prickly intense chemistry at play here that both the performances and the writing run with throughout these ten episodes (most of which play within a half-hour duration which gives it a pleasing old school feel in a day-and-age when everything feels too long). You get the sense of a possible respect, sometimes even a parental devotion between them, that is occasionally undone by an embittered one-liner that is achingly delivered by either actress, or by one of them making a bad decision that affects the other in some quietly horrifying way.
There is an alternate version of this show that could have ended up on a network like NBC where it plays out as a somewhat more sanitised version of this story, developing a vibe more akin to other Michael Schur affiliated series such as Brooklyn Nine-Nine or even Schur creations such as Parks and Recreation and The Good Place.
On a superficial level the dynamic at the heart of the comedy and drama here feels like the type of thing we always see on those shows were two generationally or philosophically opposing characters find a friendship rooted in the middle ground, but being a HBO Max original (that has wound up on Prime Video in the UK) means that Lucio Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Stasky’s writing can take a more raw and peripherally nasty turn when it wants to.
The language is spikier, the conversations a little more vicious, but the comedy is downright hilarious and can sometimes even veer towards the joyfully silly when it wants to; a misplaced voice message and the use of a wax work to unlock an iPhone screen is the series on tremendous comedic form.
That moment occurs in the sixth episode New Eyes, which may very well be one of the very best episodes of any television show from this decade so far. It’s a perfect thirty minutes in its own right, but which if you stick with the series up to this point feels like an emotional reward for not only the viewer but the characters.
The observations on patriarchal misogyny and how Deborah details how her own career and public persona were somewhat derailed by lies perpetrated by the manipulations of her ex-husband are subtly delivered, but it’s the tender by-play of both Einbinder and Smart that just adds to the devastating emotional sucker-punch at play. The wax work sequence has a touch of zaniness, but the episode as a whole is a great representation at the intense balancing act that the series is working with on a pretty masterful level.
Even more potently is the prodding the series pokes at when it comes to exploring the infrastructure of American comedy itself. Ava is facing cancel culture for a series of tweets as the series begins which brings her into the world of Deborah for ‘career rehabilitation’ while Deborah herself faces the possibility of being cast aside because she is seen as old-fashioned in a world which wants more viral famous acts playing at the Las Vegas hotel/casino where she performs.
That Deborah herself at one time tried to become a late night chat show host, a genre famously dominated by white males, is just one of the many little details that the series explores in a subtly angry way. The character interaction and chemistry of the two leads not only gives one the impression that they are watching a modern comedy classic in the making, but it’s also asks potent questions about why it is comedy is dominated by voices that skewer male and frequently cast aside women just because some idiots don’t like what they say or throw up the ‘cancel culture’ flag when they can.