Jean Smart is on a roll. Known for breaking out as Charlotte in the sitcom Designing Women, which ran on CBS from 1986 to 1991, she is now winning raves, nominations, and awards for her performances on streaming series. On HBO, she plays Kate Winslet’s mother in Mare of Easttown and a superhero turned FBI agent in Watchman. But it’s in HBO Max’s Hacks that Smart takes center stage, both literally and figuratively, as an aging standup comedian in Las Vegas trying to keep her act going and the laughs coming.
Deborah Vance (Smart) has enjoyed a long residency at Vegas’ Palmetto Hotel, managed by one of her former lovers, Marty Ghilain (Christopher McDonald). While Deborah can still attract older fans and tourists, Marty is looking to make a change. Deborah’s agent, Jimmy LuSaque (Paul W. Downs), is tasked with getting Deborah to update her act. To work with Deborah, Jimmy proposes one of his other clients, Ava Daniels (Hannah Embinder), a young comedy writer who lost a TV deal after she made an offensive joke on Twitter. Neither woman, however, is open to the idea. But with Deborah facing eviction from the Palmetto, and Ava unable to get work, they reluctantly team up.
Ava may be persona non grata in L.A., but she’s a fish out of water in Vegas. Arriving at Deborah’s mansion, she’s a bit overwhelmed, but not intimidated. The two women trade barbs and Deborah, recognizing talent when she hears it, takes Ava on, asking her to write some jokes. Deborah doesn’t use any during her next performance. Ava thinks that getting to know Deborah would help her craft jokes in the comic’s voice. Deborah suggests a road trip so they can talk, but the outing ends badly when their car gets a flat. Deborah is picked up in a helicopter, leaving Ava in the dessert to mind the car and wait for road service.
Jean Smart and Hannah Embinder
Ava can’t afford to quit so returns to the mansion the next day, only to have Deborah ask her to catalog the many tapes and DVDs stored in the basement. What begins as a tedious task, turns into a revelation for Ava. She begins to appreciate Deborah’s talents and the battles she waged to stay relevant. At one point she was being talked about as the first woman to host a late night talk show. When that dream died, along with her marriage and the relationship with her only sister, she had to fight for her career and her personal life. Collateral damage is her only daughter, DJ (Caitlin Olsen), who has been in and out of rehab.
Megan Statler and Paul W. Downs
Once Ava learns about Deborah’s life, she suggests building a show around that history. While Deborah suffered many setbacks, Ava believes her fans will welcome her candor. And, of course, even the sad moments can be milked for humor. Getting that show right, however, will take hard work, more misses than hits, and Deborah and Ava’s relationship will be tested to the breaking point.
Smart gets a chance to display her comedic talents, not only during those standup routines, but in her interactions with Ava and others. Embinder goes toe to toe with Smart, making Ava believable and someone we can root for. Ava learns more about standup comedy, while Deborah grapples with cultural issues with Ava as her guide.
Christopher McDonald and Carl Clemons-Hopkins
The two strong leads are backed up with a strong supporting cast. As Deborah’s COO, Marcus, Carl Clemons-Hopkins expertly captures the struggle as a gay man trying to succeed in Deborah’s chaotic world, while also creating a social life. Poppy Liu nails Kiki, Deborah’s quirky personal blackjack dealer. As Jimmy, Downs is the agent with a heart, something that keeps him honest, but guarantees he won’t rise to the top at his competitive talent agency. He’s helpless when the top boss saddles him with his ditsy daughter, Kayla (a fabulous Megan Statler).
Credit goes to the production team beginning with series creators Lucia Aniello, Downs (wearing another hat), and Jen Statsky, who hit on themes that will resonate with women (and men) who feel taken for granted and marginalized, no matter their age or field. Vegas has never looked better, the strip’s hotels shining and beckoning anyone who is brave enough to dream. And the costumes, particularly those worn by Smart, capture the glitz of Vegas without going over the top.
The series has not yet been renewed for a third one. Although season two concluded with an ending that tied up some loose ends, there are so many places the writers can take these characters. We want more! More of Hacks and truly, more of Smart.
Hacks can be streamed on HBO Max.
Photos courtesy of HBO Max