I’ve watched three episodes of Hacks, the HBO Max relationship comedy series about a Las Vegas-based, boomer-aged standup comic named Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) who’s been told that her career will be in trouble if she doesn’t punch up her act, and so she reluctantly hires a 25-year-old, down-on-her-luck comedy writer named Hannah Ainbinder (Ava Daniels) in hopes of doing so.
Right away I was hooked and pleased by the sharp dialogue (the writers are Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky) and the fact that when Vance and Ainbinder start trading barbs (it doesn’t take long) Hacks is genuinely funny, or at least chuckle-worthy. And that was very welcome.
I was afraid, you see, that Hacks might play like Late Night, the 2019 Amazon comedy that used the same basic set-up — a crusty, boomer-aged talk-show host named Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) whose ratings have been sinking, and thereby pressured into hiring a young comedy writer named Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), but mainly because she’s a woman of color.
Hacks is at least occasionally funny; Late Night, which bombed with the public after being embraced by the Sundance cool kidz, didn’t make me crack a smile. And for a good reason: Kaling’s Molly didn’t talk, think or behave like a comedy writer.
All good writers wield swords. They think in terms of cutting, mostly unkind observations about whatever. We all understand that jokes which “land” and actually make people laugh are always zingy and sometimes flirt with cruelty. A certain pointed irreverence is essential.
Molly’s bottom line was that she seemed to value being respected and treated courteously by Katherine and her comedy-writer colleagues above everything else, and that she’d rather swallow her tongue than wound the feelings of her fellow writers (all white guys) or anyone else for that matter. She was basically a p.c. Miss Manners type — more woke than joke.
Ainbinder is no stranger to wokester sensibilities (it comes with being in your mid 20s) but she’s not afraid to slice and dice when angered or otherwise aroused, and right away I was saying “okay, she’s a writer…she gets barbed humor…wounded and recognizable…the shoe fits.”
That’s all I’m saying for now — Hacks works because it’s funny, and because there’s no trouble believing that the two main characters are actual people. Everyone gets wounded or punctured or side-swiped in this series. Life is pain.