The 50 best TV shows of 2022: No 4 – Hacks

The 50 best TV shows of 2022: No 4 – Hacks

Magnificently brutal and emotionally whip-smart, this superb comedy never once lost sight of the humour at the heart of the gloriously damaged odd couple drama

Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder in Hacks.
Hard-won wisdom … Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder in Hacks. Photograph: HBO Max

After the final scene of season two of Hacks, viewers were left conflicted. On the one hand, wasn’t it among the most sweet and sour endings to a show ever? It would be a shame to risk spoiling it with another season. But then, wouldn’t it be awful never to hear from these magnificently astringent characters again?

The finale might have ended with Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) begging Jean Smart’s Deborah Vance: “I want to be wherever you are!” But for much of Hacks, she has wanted to be almost anywhere else – and that has been at least half the fun. An odd-couple drama, in which two incompatible individuals are imprisoned by circumstance and forced into an alliance, is far from an original setup. But Hacks’ premise – a young, bratty, wise-ass comic made to write (and go on the road with) an ageing, successful, traditional one – has given fresh life to the formula by using it to explore gender, generational divides and comedy itself.

This particular comedy is rooted in entitlement. If these women share a neurosis, it’s the sense that they deserve more than they’re getting. There’s a fascinating piquancy to the Las Vegas setting. Ostensibly, it’s the polar opposite of Ava’s hipster America but it’s oddly analogous too: both are slightly fragile, precarious and illusory. Ava is lost when she starts working for Deborah, but the real drama begins when Deborah also loses status within her world. The cancellation of her Vegas residency unmoors her in ways that seem terrifying but also push her and Ava closer together. The women must enter each other’s worlds, in uneasy solidarity.

There is clearly a subtext about the issues facing women in comedy. But Hacks is by no means a polemic – Deborah, to Ava’s horror, rarely seems to have much interest in these battles. Instead, its points are made subtly – as we soon see, any lessons Deborah teaches are practical rather than theoretical. When Ava betrays Deborah by leaking details of their stormy relationship to a TV producer, Deborah doesn’t get mad, she gets litigious. “This will be a good learning experience for you,” she says. “An expensive one too.”

Deborah’s comic claws have been honed by experience, and she’s passing that on. She knows when she’s being patronised, just as she knows when a joke isn’t funny. Ava regards her as dealing in artifice – the gloss of Vegas, the acceptance of gender limitations, the cheese overload of traditional standup. But Deborah knows her own value. Her wisdom is as hard won as her scars. And perhaps, suggests Hacks, Ava’s artifice is equally profound – the brittle self-censorship of cancel culture, the willingness to use people as stepping stones, the flailing desperation of departing youth.

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