“Hacks”, on HBO Max, is a comedy after comedy – a scary proposition, in 2021. There is a noisy kind of comic book that has no muse but a politics of grievances, which makes the stage a pulpit. intimidation. One of them even won the presidency. The pilot episode of “Hacks” draws its source from the culture war. When we meet Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a bisexual screenwriter in Los Angeles, she pouted intensely. She ended up in hot water tweeting a crass joke about a right-wing politician and his gay son; it’s such a familiar setup that no one even needs to use the term “canceled”. Ava is in her twenties with a mortgage, so the blow to her ego and wallet is kind of hell. Her agent, Jimmy (Paul W. Downs), concocts a purgatory for her: Ava will help modernize the act of another of her clients, Deborah Vance (Jean Smart, who, given her recent roles in “Watchmen” and “Mare of Easttown,” directs HBO), a Las Vegas stand-up legend whose longtime Palmetto gig is threatened by a new guard of EDM djs and a cappella bands. Ava is skeptical, but accepts a preliminary meeting.
“Hacks” was created by Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello and Downs, all screenwriters of “Broad City”. The show plays as a minor coda to this rowdy feminist comedy, which lost some of its stoner yas-girl politics after Hillary Clinton lost the election. With “Hacks”, angst is in the foreground, right there in the title: here is a society where women are alone, and where they lose even when they win.
When Ava and Deborah meet, they instantly hate each other. Deborah is put off by Ava’s bland intricacies, and Ava, growing impatient with Deborah’s short right, exclaims, “I’d rather throw Bang-Bang Chicken and Shrimp all day than work here!” ” Intrigued by his nerve, Deborah hires him and at this point, “Hacks” opens with something more than an indulgent investigation into the state of comedy. It is a look at the soul of the artist: what truths she is able to say, and what she forces herself to repress.
The symmetries between Ava and Deborah are clear. They both have strained relationships with their families, a history of failed romances, and a propensity for judgment and cruelty. This is how the generational war between the Zoomers and the Boomers is heated by mutual recognition. These two ideologues have very different visions of what comedy can look like and achieve. Ava is the rookie Dadaist, claiming that the punchlines are remnants of a traditional joke structure that is “very masculine”. She has a weakness for archery and Mitch Hedberg-style hostility (eg, “I had a horrible nightmare and got a voicemail”). Deborah, like Freud, believes in jokes as discrete architectural objects, daggers that sting the collective unconscious. Ava lashes out at Deborah for making jokes with mass appeal – jokes for the “Panera people”. Deborah replies, “So you tell me that if a lot of people think something is funny, it isn’t. “
The dialogue, in these first episodes, can be too niche, too meta-referential, too obsessed with the profession. “Hacks” is not a joke machine; the last episodes are downright melancholy. You laugh, but not hysterically. The scenes from Deborah’s stand-up routine at the Palmetto have a surreal quality. They do not exist to amuse but to catch a woman in the paradoxical situation of exposure and opacity, control and vulnerability. Ava’s laugh tends to be mocking, until she begins cataloging Deborah’s archives, which include an unreleased pilot for a nighttime talk show, shot decades earlier. We see a young Deborah as the host, digitally aged, in what may be the first use of this seemingly moving tech. At the time, Deborah was a newcomer, a feminist trailblazer in a male dominated form.
“Hacks” subtly recasts the last half-century of American comedy as a distorted matriarchy, through which we can follow the evolution of the “female voice”. Before Ava started working for Deborah, her acquaintance with the older comedian had been fleeting, unquestioned. Ava knew her as the daring broad with a QVC deal, a paragon of shamelessness who notoriously torched the house of her ex-husband, another well-known comic. It’s Deborah’s most famous joke, and it has cast a shadow over her career as well. When Deborah casually reveals to Ava that the house actually burned down in an accident, Ava balks. Deborah’s explanation? When she experimented with the joke at a concert, “he killshe said, her eyes shining. If it was killing something else in her, then that was a price she was willing to pay.
Ava falls in love with her boss. She pushes Deborah to adopt a more confessional stand-up style and show her suffering, which she had hidden in a character. That’s the hook of “Hacks” – how Smart inhabits a character who doesn’t want to be known. The blond bouffant, curvy caftans, and sour tongue are an homage to Joan Rivers, and some plot points are virtually identical to details in Rivers’ life. Scenes of Deborah in a spa, recovering from a pinch and withdrawal routine, reminded me of Phyllis Diller, who was revolutionaryly transparent about her own cosmetic procedures. We can also guess Lily Tomlin and other giants in the performance of Smart, a haunting and confrontational portrayal of the 20th century woman who had to fight for liberation on her own terms. Ava, on the other hand, didn’t have a real story. Dragging himself into a Carhartt and Doc Martens jacket, alienating his careerist peers and sweet Midwestern parents, his character comes across as an extended satire of the Zillennial bourgeoisie. It’s not convincing that this person would force a wake-up call in someone like Deborah. But Einbinder works hard to match Smart, and at times, seeing them enter grooves of compassion, I felt myself blush.
The rest of the cast, by the way, also kills. Christopher McDonald is perfect in the role of Marty, the operator of the Palmetto, a sordid hunk who makes Deborah lose his temper. And Carl Clemons-Hopkins, who plays Deborah’s consigliere Marcus, lends solidity to the questions of race and wealth that inevitably arise when a gay black man devotes himself to an older white woman. Then again, anyone would shine around Smart. It generates its own light.
Like “Hacks,” “Girls5eva,” on Peacock, snags a bygone phenomenon: ’90s pop celebrity. Members of a successful girl group are awakened from their slumber when a rapper named Lil Stinker samples their music. signature song. After this second contact with fame, the ladies decide to reunite, giving up their unsatisfying life to write the perfect hit. Created by Meredith Scardino, screenwriter for “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and produced by Tina Fey, “Girls5eva” is based on the Fey model: accessibly absurd, riddled with intelligent zingers, loaded with criticism. The casting makes it a fun frenzy. Renée Elise Goldsberry brings Broadway largesse to the character of Wickie, the defeated diva with the unyielding voice. Her foil is Dawn (Sara Bareilles), the Liz Lemon of the operation, a mom from Queens eager to prove herself as a songwriter. Paula Pell blesses us with Gloria, a loving lesbian dentist, and Busy Philipps does her best as Summer, the simple-minded Christian woman. We also have a Swedish Svengali, a debased manager and martyr of the boy band, in performances by Stephen Colbert, Jonathan Hadary and Andrew Rannells.
You stay through the stumbles of “Hacks” because it’s energizing to see the show’s creators pay homage to a form they revere. “Girls5eva” doesn’t think too much about pop; the series does take into account the turn-of-the-century misogyny that fueled pop music in 2000, but it’s not that interested in exploring what made that music transcendent. If “TRL” was poison, then why did a generation drink it? What “Girls5eva” is really waiting for is Fey’s prime-time reign. In the flashbacks to the band’s fleeting climax, there is a pompous atonality in the satirical lyrics. (“I love watching standing up, but not by women,” they sing, in a tune called “Dream Girlfriends.”) And then there’s the character of Summer. She’s the analogue of Britney Spears, the sweet and stunted adult, which means she should be the heart of the story, right? Not so. “Free Britney,” the singers promise, in one scene just before Summer trains them to practice their “Britney Ladders”. They embark on a parody of the sexy-robot-baby voice. It’s a cheap laugh. ♦