In “Hacks,” a new HBO Max series, Jean Smart portrays a Las Vegas-based comedian nearing the end of her career, who reluctantly recruits a young comedy writer (Hannah Einbinder) who is nearing the end of hers, thanks to the will of series writers Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello, and Jen Statsky.
Deborah Vance, a comedy legend, is played by Smart. She was once on the cover of Time and appeared in a sitcom with her partner, who later abandoned her in favor of her girlfriend. Deborah’s reputation hasn’t been tarnished by the rumor that she burnt down his house — gossip taken as gospel, but nothing that led to an arson accusation. She has a private jet, is ready to pay $10,000 for a salt shaker, has set a Vegas success record, and is about to get a street named after her (“It’ll actually be a dead end for an abortion clinic”). QVC sells out with her high-end bath caddies. But, if it hasn’t completely ruined her future, it has undoubtedly sidetracked it: The inference, as reflected by some exceptionally well-done facsimiles of old magazines and video footage, is that she would have been Jay Leno rather than only being on “Jay Leno” if it hadn’t been for the burn — which has stuck to her like gum on a high heel.
Comedy is rarely explored on few occasions, and when it is, it is a philosophical expression of their generational divide. Deborah’s routine features jokes such as “I wouldn’t say I’m an alcoholic, I’d slur it.” Deborah is amused by Ava’s comment, “I had a horrible nightmare that I got a voicemail,” which she does not remember as a joke. As the older woman shares more of her life with Ava, who believes that reality is irony and comedy truth is comedy, she begs her to “talk about all of this in your act, all of it.”
The showrunners are also the creators of the fantastic “Broad City,” another show featuring two women exploring the world in an odd town, but “Hacks” is a somewhat different kind of show. On the basis of the first three-fifths of the season, it’s impossible to predict where things will go in the next two or where the motor that will propel the plot to a climax or epilogue will kick in. So apart from the real and relevant target of interpersonal attachment, the stakes are surprisingly low; it’s a matter of whether Ava will convince Deborah to turn to confessional humor, Deborah will get to play Fridays and Saturdays, or DJ could get her jewelry line on QVC. Descriptive convention assumes that a disaster is on the horizon, one that would turn their love into disaffection. But, when we get there, we’ll board the bus.