We Desperately Needed the Glorious Return of Jean Smart in ‘Hacks’


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I have come to learn that few images spark more joy than that of Jean Smart in a leopard print glamour kaftan swanning through the Nevada desert.

Hacks premiered last year like a ray of light piercing through storm clouds. The world feels pretty terrible right now. It felt pretty terrible then, too! What’s more fun than years of static misery? What a time to be alive!

But if things don’t seem to have really changed, other than the specifics of what exactly is making the act of existence so particularly crushing at any given moment, at least this hasn’t changed either. If the simple pleasures we get, the fleeting distractions that uplift, are fun things to watch on TV, then Hacks is still the serotonin blast, the satiating fuel for joy-parched souls, that it was.

The HBO Max series stars Smart as Deborah Vance, a trailblazing stand-up comedian at the sunset of her career, being pushed out of her popular Las Vegas residency for younger blood. She’s imperious and intimidating, regal and brash, and undeniably strong with a vulnerable streak. Smart crafted a character in the mold of Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller, whose bawdy one-liners, obvious ego, and radiating star quality made the fictional Deborah Vance an instant icon; gays started wearing Deborah Vance merch with her face on it as if it was a rock concert tee.

The Jean Smartaissance Has Arrived: Inside Her Spectacular ‘Hacks’ and ‘Mare of Easttown’ Performances

The tension at the heart of the series was that Deborah was being forced to work with a young comedy writer, who herself came with career baggage, in order to remain relevant enough to keep her Vegas slot. Hannah Einbinder’s Ava, a moody, resentful millennial, was Deborah’s foil-turned-Odd Couple confidant. In sly and subtle ways, the series deepened over the course of the season, exploring how their respective traumas bonded them despite generational differences and their collective obstinance.

That’s what made the series great, and its haul of Emmy Awards speaks to that. But it’s the kind of once-in-a-lifetime performance from Smart that created not just a fandom or admiration, but an obsession. Smart playing Deborah Vance is one of those performances that you can’t stop talking about, and won’t. Apologies to every human being I encountered throughout the course of Hacks’ first season for interrupting every conversation to blurt out some hyperbolic monologue about how great Smart is on Hacks and how meaningful a showcase this is after such a long career. A Starbucks barista and I once wept together while bonding over it.

The first two new episodes of Season 2 premiered this week on HBO Max. Are they as “good” as the first season was? It would be almost impossible to measure up to that.

Judging by the episodes we screened, the new season lacks the tightness and direction of the veteran legend mounting an unlikely comeback and confronting what her life would mean without her career. But it makes up for that by embracing what it means when a series that was so tethered to a completed storyline loses that grounding. Season 2 of Hacks says a hearty “yes, and…” to chaos.

After a moving finale in which Deborah surprises Ava at her father’s funeral and, not only emcees the service, but invites Ava to go with her on tour, a wrench is thrown in their path toward happily ever after.

In a testament to how brutally real this show about stand-up comedy had become, Deborah slaps Ava near the end of the first season. Ava quits and, in a drunken and high fit, sends an email to Hollywood producers she had previously interviewed with for a job exposing all of Deborah’s worst behaviors and personality traits, giving them permission to use the details in a series about a shrew of a powerful woman who abuses those who work for her.

The reunion at the funeral for Ava’s dad should be a kumbaya moment, but the audience knows that the other shoe is about to drop. In Season 2, it takes a beat for that to happen, and it falls like an anvil. Not a cartoon anvil, though. It’s an earned, emotional scene. It also is the catalyst for the season’s chaos.

Deborah doesn’t behave in the way you’d expect when she inevitably finds out, and it’s great material for Smart’s delicate drama chops and uproarious penchant for vengeful comedy. It all unfolds during what ends up being the major conceit for Season 2, which morphs into a road trip comedy. We were going to say road trip “buddy” comedy, but that’s not entirely accurate for what unfolds between Deborah and Ava.

There are things about the new season that don’t work in confusing ways. The side characters of Jimmy, the agent (played by Paul W. Downs), and Kayla, his hilariously incompetent assistant (Meg Stalter), get beefed up screentime and their own plot outside of the Deborah drama. It turns out some things are better in small doses. Similarly, spending more time with Carl Clemons-Hopkins’ manager character is, in theory, nice—it’s a very likable role performed by a very likable actor. But you can’t shake the feeling that these threads are distractions from the main show.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Jean Smart in <em>Hacks</em> Season 2.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">HBO Max</div>

Jean Smart in Hacks Season 2.


That spectacle is Jean Smart as Deborah Vance on an elaborate tour bus driving through the Midwest’s finest B- and C-tier cities. As a sweetener, Laurie Metcalf boards the series as Deborah’s tour manager, a woman who is serious-as-hell about her job. It is my firm belief that Laurie Metcalf joining Hacks is the gift from the universe we’ve all been owed after what we’ve endured these last years, and Metcalf doesn’t disappoint. Duh. She’s Laurie Metcalf.

Mark Indelicato also joins the tour as Deborah’s assistant, which adds a fascinating new dynamic. These are characters whose messy lives are forgiven, and maybe even implicitly encouraged, because it’s all fodder for the all-important, unimpeachable art form: Comedy. He pops that balloon.

“I don’t like comedy,” he says at one point. “Everyone’s trying too hard. It’s, like, so awkward.”

It’s never great when a series writes its own indictment, yet here we are. But we’re also here with Laurie Metcalf. On a bus. With Jean Smart. Quibbles may be had, but all is forgiven.

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