Just as one can’t help but think of early-career Joan Rivers while watching “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” it’s impossible not to think of late-career Joan Rivers while watching the fantastically funny, sharp, knowing and insightful new comedy series “Hacks” on HBO, with the great Jean Smart once again delivering Emmy-quality work. Smart absolutely owns the role of the 70-something Deborah Vance, a brassy, trailblazing, old-school stand-up comic who has a longstanding residency at a Las Vegas hotel/casino, wears expensive but loud outfits, hawks bargain jewelry on a TV shopping network, is forever dealing with a grown daughter who can’t escape her shadow and you get the idea, right? Joan. Rivers.
Not that Smart is executing anything close to an impersonation of Rivers. This is a big, brilliant, wholly original performance, with Smart constantly shifting emotional gears and deftly stealing every scene she’s in while somehow also managing to make room for the other actors in the room to have their moments. She’s a wonder to behold — and she has a terrific comedic partner in relative newcomer Hannah Einbinder, who plays a millennial writer-comedian named Ava hired to punch up Deborah’s solid but increasingly tired act, which still contains references to Anna Nicole Smith and men who leave the toilet seat up. (If some of Einbinder’s mannersims and cadences seem vaguely familiar to longtime comedy fans, it might be because the stand-up comic is the daughter of original “Saturday Night Live” cast member Laraine Newman.)
Showrunners Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniella and Jen Statsky have created an instantly addictive, bitingly hilarious situation comedy — not a “sitcom,” with all the baggage that entails, but a genuinely laugh-producing show borne of admittedly exaggerated situations that still seem semi-plausible.
Einbinder’s Ava Daniels is an entitled, self-centered, sarcastic, Los Angeles-based 25-year-old who achieved a modicum of fame as an internet comic when she was just 20 but has hit a career roadblock after being “canceled” when she tweeted a snarky joke about a closeted politician. Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Smart’s Deborah Vance has set a record with 2,500 shows, is about to have a street named in her honor and has a giant billboard outside the Palmetto Casino, where she has headlined for years — but the casino’s owner, Marty (Christopher McDonald, doing that tanned and slimy villain thing he does so well), wants to bump Deborah’s Friday and Saturday shows in favor of an EDM act that recently won a televised talent show. Deborah’s punchline-oriented, well-worn routine still has the Florida tourists laughing, but she’s not cutting it with the next generation(s).
Hmmmm, if only Deborah could be paired with a hipster comic a half-century her junior who’s desperately in need of work! As plot would have it, Deborah and Anv share an agent: Paul W. Downs’ Jimmy, who is what I like to call a Phone Character, in that at least half of the role consists of Jimmy working the phones, and Downs kills it with every line reading. Jimmy figures he can solve two clients’ problems with one move: Ava will drive to Vegas and work with Deborah and spice up her act with current-day humor, thus giving Ava work and making Deborah more relevant. What could possibly go … right?
Smart and Einbinder are stunningly good together as Deborah and Ava clash in their initial meetings, most of which take place in Deborah’s obscenely huge mansion outside the Vegas Strip. Ava is so arrogant she didn’t bother to research Deborah’s career, which spans all the way back to the 1970s and includes a hit sitcom and a shot at making late-night talk show history that evaporated after a scandal, while Deborah rolls her eyes at Ava’s “woke” scolding and says Ava’s writing is just a bunch of random thoughts and observations with no structure. The two of them don’t realize, at least at first, how scathingly funny they both are when they go after one another.
This is the kind of show that’s brimming with interesting, funny and real supporting characters as well, from the aforementioned Marty the casino owner and Jimmy the agent to Deborah’s housekeeper, Josefina (Rose Abdoo); her COO, Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), and her troublesome grown daughter, DJ (the comedic force Kaitlin Olson from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”). Even when we take a subplot detour into the lives of the backup players, “Hacks” never loses its edge — but it’s when Smart and Einbinder have the floor to themselves that this show sparkles brighter than Deborah’s outfits under the Vegas spotlight. Sure, that line is a little hacky, but it’s the truth.