Few subgenres have succeeded on television like stand-up-based comedy. From the boom of the stand-up sitcom in the 1990s to the wildly successful HBO comedy specials, the medium broadened its reach in the years after vinyl albums. Despite its prevalence, the formula seemed to weaken in recent years. Most series that utilized the artform burned out after Everybody Loves Raymond, leaving a void in the comedy ranks. When The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel found success, it was undeniable that another series or two would try to build on the newfound success. HBO Max strikes gold with Hacks, a new series starring Jean Smart as a famous Vegas comedian looking to maintain her iconic status. Behind Smart, the series finds both pathos and genuinely funny material, rocketing itself into the prestige comedy ranks overnight.
Set in Las Vegas, Hacks follows the dimming star of comedian Deborah Vance (Smart). Vance has a Vegas residency, an iconic television show in her back pocket, and her face in bright lights. However, new acts and future stars begin to encroach on her territory. As she begins to lose dates of her residency, her agent Jimmy (Paul W. Downs) pairs her with Ava (Hannah Einbinder). After Ava finds herself out of work due to a social media gaffe, she has no choice but to start writing for her new boss.
Smart leads the way with her viper-like comedic timing. When she homes in on a joke, she delivers stellar punchlines. She commits to the weaker material with gusto. For an actress that’s often the most talented performer on-set, Smart often sacrifices personal gusto for the good of the series. In Hacks, the gloves are off, and Smart brings the wit, energy, and holier-than-thou attitude needed to sell the illusion of Vance as a cultural institution.
Einbinder does her best to keep up with Smart but wisely plays off the energy the star brings to each scene. She matches her co-star’s general disdain for those she feels are beneath her. Despite the attitude, she continuously stumbles in faux-pas after faux-pas. Ava’s ambition is palpable, hiding beneath the surface of each scene. She speaks of the cultural forces working against her but fails to acknowledge her privilege in her career. Einbinder plays up these elements of her character but rarely alienates her character from the audience.
With the comedic pedigree working on Hacks, few would be surprised at the scathing humor coursing throughout the series. Writing trio Downs, Lucia Aniello, and Jen Statsky previously collaborated on Broad City for Comedy Central, developing a unique style for bawdy humor with their leads. Statsky’s ties with fellow executive producer Mike Schur added further credibility to the project. Together, the team creates a blend of comedy that suites locations and characters.
The duality of Las Vegas’s gaudy but refined taste sneaks into the corners of every frame. Few images evoke purgatory like the Vegas cafeteria buffet but Hacks one-ups the image by making an employee basement buffet. Vance’s car is a Rolls-Royce, but we discover she disposes of them like used furniture. Beige and gold are the base colors of the series’ color palette, creating continuity between the ever-changing environments.
Hacks will continue to build on its success throughout the season. The floor for the series has already proven its value as an emotional and heartfelt comedy. As it develops its rhythms and comedic palette, the series will only get funnier. With high production values, excellent sitcom instincts, and an understanding of the difference between good and bad stand-up, Hacks is a breath of fresh air in the prestige comedy arena.