A Series About Comedy That’s Not That Funny
As Edmund Gwenn put it: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” And even harder is putting together a TV show about how hard comedy is. The reason 30 Rock ended up last seven seasons was because Tina Fey and company made the smart decision early on that the show at the center wasn’t going to be funny and therefore they could make fun of everything else. Aaron Sorkin took the other approach in Studio 60 and despite having an incredible cast, made an utterly disaster of a TV show. The biggest success dealing with comedy, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is as good as it is because it deals only peripherally with Midge’s act and has a lot of fun with everything other aspect of show business.
This is not the most encouraging way to start a review of HBO Max’s newest comedy Hacks, and there’s a reason for that: despite receiving a fair amount of praise, I don’t think it works particularly well as a comedy. The series focuses on Deborah Vance (Jean Smart, who I’ll get to in a minute) a legendary comedienne who is clearly on the downside of her career. Her Vegas Residency is being threatened by a casino owner who’s trying to push her out with a boy band, and it seems a lot of her income is supplemented from various home shopping network and days on the road.
In the middle of this comes Ava, a millennial comic writer who has just gotten fired for a horrible tweet. Ava is desperate for work, but seems to want it on her own terms. That basically means trying to find work without saying you need work. She ‘runs into’ an old friend at a café, and seems utterly astonished that she won’t give her a favor. She orders delivery food in order to get a place to sleep. Her agent, Marcus, really wants to help her, but is utterly unable to deal with someone who won’t do her work. He ‘arranges’ for Ava to work for Deborah Vance without either of them agreeing to it before hand. The show is about how Ava and Deborah begin to work together.
Granted that I’ve only seen two episodes so far, I find the central premise of this series flawed from the get go. The lion’s share of the blame has to fall in the character of Ava. I didn’t think there could be more offsetting young characters on TV since We Are Who We Are finished its run last year, but Ava utterly makes them seem warm and cuddly. From the moment we meet Ava, she completely epitomizes the very worst aspects of every level of the entitled millennial. She thinks she’s a successful comic writer, but she doesn’t want to do any of the work of being a writer. And it seems like every aspect of Hannah Einbinder’s performance seems to be determined to bring out the most unpleasant part of her. She doesn’t bother to do any research into Deborah when she meets her, she refuses to put in the minimum of work when it comes to her initial job of writing jokes (something that Deborah calls her on from the very beginning) and she seems to believe that what she thinks is funny, the world thinks is funny. (I’ll get to that in a moment.) In a critical moment in the second episode, she recycles a story a friend of Deborah’s told her to try and get what she wants out of a selfish shopkeeper. In a sense that’s exactly who Ava is. She has nothing new to offer.
Where the series works — and is often brilliant — is entirely from the performance of Jean Smart. Smart has always been one of the television’s most brilliant and versatile actresses; it’s almost impossible to believe this is the same woman we saw in Mare of Easttown just a few weeks ago. It would be easy to make Deborah just seem like another tired old comedienne cruising on her legend, and it’s not easy to like her: she’s brutal to everybody: the casino owner, her agent, even her own daughter. But when she disparages Ava (and those moments are the highpoint of the show), you get a sense of who she is and why she does. The best moment I’ve seen so far comes when Ava tries to convince her of her abilities by saying: “I’m good.” Deborah looks at her, says: “Good’s the baseline,” and in a brilliant monologue lays bare exactly what it takes to succeed in the business and how entitled Ava is. When she flies away in a helicopter (you have to be there) leaving Ava behind, you get the feeling that it’s the best way she could exit. Smart utterly deserves to be in the conversation for Best Actress in a Comedy.
Right now, however, the major problem with Hacks is that the comedy just isn’t funny. In Deborah’s act, you get no sign as to how she became a legend or what makes Ava a brilliant talent. The end of the Pilot, where they try to come up with a joke of the horrible tweet Ava made was an utter mess, not just because Ava’s tweet wasn’t funny, but because the end result wasn’t funny either. This is often the sticking point for those few shows that try to deal with it: it’s why Studio 60 bombed and was the main reason that I’m Dying Up Here (a series about The Comedy Store) had so many problems. Midge’s act on Maisel is often improvised, but at least it’s funny.
I’m not going to give up on Hacks for one reason: Jean Smart. For decades, Smart has been one of the greatest talents on television, and every six or seven years, the medium keeps relearning this. In the 2000s, we all were in awe of her as Martha Logan on 24 and as the messed up mother on Samantha Who? In the 2010s, we marveled at her brilliance as Floyd Gerhardt, the doomed matriarch of a crime family in the second season of Fargo. Now once again, the world has discovered her on her double threat these past few months, coming off a brilliant performance on Watchmen. . Smart isn’t quite Deborah Vance, but she is as close to an icon as television has seen. I’m not sure yet she deserves an Emmy for Hacks, but I think she’d have a better speech that Deb would.
My score: 3.25 stars.