There are few things these days that help keep together the tattered remains of a belief in the universe’s moral arc bending towards justice, but the continuing renaissance of Jean Smart is one of them. After substantial supporting parts in the television series Fargo Watchmen and Mare of Easttown, the actor who started in the business in 1979 is now front and centre in HBO Max’s new comedy drama Hacks (showing in the UK on Amazon Prime Video).
Smart plays Deborah Vance, a battle-hardened veteran of the standup comedy scene who now lives in Las Vegas. Vance is playing 100 shows a year at the Palmetto casino in between flogging tat and her guts out on a shopping channel, doing paid daytime events and never, ever letting down the fans who still adore her, even if they follow in smaller droves than they once did. Then it’s home to a magnificent mansion and her beloved dogs, and time to take the wig and makeup off before having dinner alone.
There are clear parallels with Joan Rivers here, whose life was also one of constant hustle and glamorous graft (and, famously, beloved dogs and a jewellery line on QVC). But there is never any sense of the snotty mockery with which Rivers, especially in later life, was frequently treated. It’s the greatest triumph of Hacks – which has many – that Deborah exists in the round and her work, life, legacy and flaws are never treated with anything other than respect by her creators. Which is not to say that fun is never poked at all of them by other characters – that being pretty much the definition of writerly respect.
Despite the constant hustle, however, Deborah’s star is on the wane and Marty, the owner of the Palmetto and as close a thing to a friend as Deborah has, wants to hand her Friday and Saturday slots over to a reality show winner who is now big box office. To buy her time to negotiate, Deborah’s manager Jimmy (Paul W Downs) sends one of his younger clients over to help her produce fresher, more relevant material – in the faint hope that the partnership will work out.
TV comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder, doing a fair job of going toe-to-toe with Smart) has been unemployed since tweeting a joke about a closeted senator and his gay son. There are few false notes in Hacks but, when we hear the joke, it is one of them – it doesn’t punch down and doesn’t sound like anything that would have caused sufficient furore to make Ava unhirable across town, even in a bastion of integrity such as LA.
After a rocky start, the pair accept each other’s presence and the rest of the series follows the gradual – and it is pleasingly slow, non-linear and credible – evolution of their relationship from reluctant professional assignation to cautious and eventually moving friendship. They are both prickly, both assured of their talent and essential rightness in all things comic (and, for Deborah, everything else, too), as well as being in need of change. We can see how much Ava could learn from a woman who has seen it all, done most of it and knows what it takes to overcome the relentless hostility of the world – and particularly the men in it. And we can see how much Deborah needs to shed some of the diva attitude she has accrued over the years and admit that a new perspective needn’t mean the destruction of all that she has created.
There are plenty of laughs along the way, but it’s the unforced emotional truths that make Hacks a right and proper vehicle for Smart. She has long been the go-to for any casting director looking for a tough broad, and now she gets to play all the notes that sang underneath.