Jean Smart has been owning television in the past several years (see: Fargo, Legion, Watchmen) and she continues her hot streak with the HBO Max series Hacks, an infectious comedy-drama. Smart stars as Deborah Vance, a comedic actress who rose to fame in sitcoms before reinventing herself as a stand-up comic in the wake of a highly publicized celebrity break-up. Now she’s a wealthy fixture of the Las Vegas casino set, performing a steady gig — although her contentious relationship with casino owner Marty Ghilain (Christopher McDonald) doesn’t always make for the most stable of workplaces. Thanks to the beleaguered efforts of Deborah’s agent Jimmy (Paul W. Downs), Deborah’s path is about to collide with that of Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder), a young, up-and-coming comedy writer whose career is squelched when an untimely tweet de-platforms her. Jimmy is also Ava’s agent, and spontaneously crams them together by sending Ava to Vegas to write new material for Deborah, in the hopes of keeping his two problem clients happy. Initially, the old hand and the young upstart generate more painful friction than sparks, but they gradually wear down each other’s defenses when they find common cause: surviving the tedious, dispiriting sexism of the comedy world.
Anyone with their ear to the ground is probably aware that Hacks just racked up a host of Emmy nominations, including for Smart, Einbinder, Carl Clemons-Hopkins (as Deborah’s long-suffering business manager Marcus), and Outstanding Comedy Series. Having whipped through this season effortlessly, I can confirm it’s worthy of the accolades. In the key roles, Smart and Einbinder are a classic odd couple that finds chemistry in their conflict, and their joint story is both broadly entertaining, timely, and affecting. The stand-up material itself isn’t always that convincing, but that’s a rare drawback on an otherwise rock-solid show. Behind the scenes, both the humor and the drama are stellar, and Hacks knows just how to walk between those poles. A superb first season, hopefully with many more to come.