The Secret to Hacks‘ Success? Its Women Thrive on Their Own TermsPhoto: Karen Ballard/HBO Max TV Features Hacks
HBO Max’s Emmy Award-winning series Hacks is many things: A dark comedy, a cautionary tale about why no one should probably ever go to Las Vegas for any reason, and of course, a vehicle for star Jean Smart to continually remind the world why she’s one of the greatest and most versatile actresses working today. It’s also something of a Rorschach test: We all agree that it’s extremely funny, but it’s not clear that there’s a cultural consensus as to why.
A lot of reviews insist that Hacks is simply a story about the art of making comedy, a showbiz confessional that gleefully prods the dark underbelly of the world of professional stand-up and shines a light on the behind-the-scenes workings of an entertainment business that’s often more about connections and favors than real talent. Others claim it’s a tale of generational angst, as a Boomer and a Zoomer come to learn there’s more to one another than the simple stereotypes we see in the media. Depending on who you ask, Hacks is a story about sexism, an ode to the absurdity of celebrity culture, or a workplace comedy about being trapped with a horrible boss.
But the truth is, it’s all of those things at once. At its heart, Hacks is simply a story about women, and if it is also one that touches on all those other things, well, that’s simply because they’re all part and parcel of the lives of the women at its center and the experiences they have navigating the world. This is a story about comedy, yes—but it’s also a comedy about ageism and family and classism and life, all told through a specifically and extremely necessary female lens.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the entertainment industry is unkind to women. Even when women “win,” they still lose—feminist trailblazers are as frequently punished as they are celebrated, asked to sacrifice their identities or self-respect to get ahead, or to fight with other women for the chance to be the token female figure left standing in a group of men. This is increasingly true as those women get older, or mouthier, or stop being willing to play industry games. And while Hacks clearly knows all this, instead of mocking those women, it allows them to roar.
In the most basic sense, Hacks follows the story of Deborah Vance (Smart), a legendary comic in the twilight of her career who hires Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder), an up-and-coming L.A. writer looking for work in the wake of an ill-timed, publicly embarrassing tweet, to help her come up with some fresh material. The two clash about almost everything, from what makes a joke funny to the idea of what comedy as an institution is supposed to be and do. But despite their initially confrontational odd couple vibes, what eventually brings them together is the commonality of their experience, as two women who are trying to take control of their stories on their own terms.
“I realized that people would rather laugh at me than believe me,” Deborah tells Ava in Season 1 while explaining why she’s spent years trading on (and essentially building a personality around) the joke that she’s a crazy woman who burned down her ex-husband’s house. Because that was, in some ways, preferable to the truth—even for Deborah herself: that she loved a man who was small and jealous, who couldn’t handle a spouse who bested him in so many different ways.
A remarkably sincere story about deeply cynical people, Hacks is also a love letter to loud women, to bossy women, and women who take up space and aren’t sorry for it. Women who know their value and fight to make others recognize it, whether they want to or not, who call the world out on its bullshit. Maybe the best thing about Hacks is that, while it is scathingly honest about its leads’ (many) flaws, it doesn’t ask either of them to become less than they are in order for the show’s larger story to work. And, perhaps more importantly, it never casts either as the butt of the jokes it’s telling.
The show doesn’t mock Deborah as old or out of touch, forever struggling to keep up with trendy Ava’s edgy youthfulness. Nor does it punch down, making Ava just another horrible example of a millennial culture that selfishly ruins everything it touches. Instead, it embraces the humanity in them both and finds common ground between them: in the way they both have to navigate and experience the world, in their fight to be taken seriously without caving to the pressure to be likable, or in their refusal to fit themselves into the boxes that society has deemed acceptable for them.
Hacks is painfully honest about the fact that it’s hard to be a woman in the entertainment industry, but perhaps even more so to be one in the world at large, a place that despite multiple waves of feminism and the rise of the girlboss, still seems most comfortable with women who know their place. As a culture, we reward men for being ambitious, for speaking their minds, or for taking risks, allowing them to fail upward over and over again no matter how often they get things wrong. But far too often, it feels as though women are only ever given one shot at anything, and deemed bitchy or shrill for daring to ask for more.
Deborah and Ava’s stories are about two women making their own second chances on their own terms and Hacks, at its best, is a show about how to live and keep growing in a world that’s constantly asking you to make yourself smaller for its benefit. (No matter if you’re an aging legend, a talented upstart, a seemingly ditzy secretary, or a blackjack dealer.) A story not just about the jokes we tell, but what our humor says about us, and how it reflects on the society we’re trying to build. And maybe, despite our best intentions, how far we still have to go.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.