Some comedies better be mean. hacks, the HBO Max series about aging comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and her unlikely partnership with Ava (Hannah Einbinder), her reluctant millennial joke writer, is a prime example; a comedy about two women who don’t like each other at all but are forced by circumstances to work together. This resulted in a constant stream of jokes: Deborah was effortlessly roasting Ava, and Ava was sputtering and fidgeting while trying to update Deborah’s outdated feminism to no avail. Locking horns, the couple would individually reflect on ideas of progress and how their culture has continued to fail women in the same way Deborah was familiar with, despite Ava’s broader feminist lexicon. This tension made hacks compelling, and it’s still in danger of falling apart for a very simple and understandable reason: everything falls apart if the two leads start to like each other too much.
The “villain” in this context is a source of tension, which all comedies need to survive. As in season 1, there will always be generational tension between Ava and Deborah, but this is the least interesting version of hacks – the generation gap is extremely well-honed comedy ground, and at its best hacks tries to work with more subtle and complex subjects. From Ava’s perspective, it’s a workplace show about how to work with a boss who hates you and who you literally can’t get away from. From Deborah’s perspective, this is a fight to be taken seriously without giving in to the pressure to remain likable at all times. Together, they paint a portrait of what it means to perform femininity through its two white threads.
[Ed. Note: Minor spoilers for season 2 follow]
Season 2 steers their complicated relationship through the gauntlet of the road trip, as Deborah goes on tour for the first time after years as an institution in Las Vegas, and Ava accompanies her to the new material workshop. Unfortunately, their newly cozy relationship is threatened by an angry email Ava sent to TV producers looking for dirt on Deborah for a show they were doing, dirt which Ava was happy to provide to the era.
For a short time, hacks settles for ignoring that tension, coping mostly as a comedy showcase for Smart, whose prolific, decades-long television career isn’t nearly as underrated as her character’s, but could absolutely be a bit more. acclaimed. As Deborah, Smart delivers a layered performance of a woman who both rediscovers her own ambition and comes to grips with the idea that she can still take a little more space in the world, ageist attitudes and changing social mores be damned. At the same time, Ava is trying to turn her life around and be less selfish, even though she’s not quite sure what that’s like — and that pesky email continues to haunt her.
Eventually, Ava’s email is revealed and hacks begins a very funny gag of Deborah purposely upsetting Ava out of revenge — putting an antique chest of drawers in front of her bunk on the tour bus, refusing to let her poop in the bathroom, throwing her kombucha out the window — but road trips have a fun way of bringing people together. This antagonism does not last very long.
Critics only received the first six episodes of hacks eight-episode second season, so there’s plenty of time for this relationship to change multiple times, and it’s to the writers’ credit that such momentum is clear. Part of the story of the road trip involves Deborah further confronting how the world has changed around her as she remained ensconced on stage performing the same show night after night. Now she’s out there, performing to crowds who hate her, meeting people she’s wronged, drinking in the kind of bars she hasn’t set foot in for ages. While it’s fun to watch her being mean to Ava, their animosity — which is entirely one-sided at this point — still drives them to change. Deborah’s villainy is layered; sometimes a defensive response to years of mockery by an indifferent and sexist world, and at others an extension of her own ignorance, which Ava reminds her of, in her annoying way.
This is what makes the relationship central in hacks so convincing. It’s about something that’s true but rarely expressed in TV comedies, which need tension to thrive but can’t have also a lot of fear that it would make a serial narrative unsustainable. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible: The pleasure of watching hacks is in how the series explores how a person might be driven to change by someone who hates them as much as they might be by someone they love.
The first two episodes of hacks are streaming now on HBO Max, with new episodes on Thursdays.