Warning: contains spoilers for Hacks season 1 & 2.
In the first episode of Hacks, 20-something L.A. comedy writer Ava orders takeout and has a one night stand with the delivery man. (Ava mostly sleeps with and fantasises about women but, as she overshares with wild inappropriateness in a job interview later on, sometimes requires penetrative sex with a man to climax). The next morning, Ava waves the guy away without a thought and gets back to the self-involved business of being her.
In the show’s penultimate season two episode, Ava has a one-night stand with her sub-letter who gives her the exact same brush-off the following day. This time, Ava’s hurt. The sub-letter is rude and mean! What is wrong with people, thinks Ava.
People haven’t changed; Ava has. After being immune to it her whole life, she’s finally learned the power of human connection. Closeness, vulnerability and trust are all – by the end of season two – part of Ava’s emotional vocabulary. She learnt them by meeting herself 45 years in the future. After a fashion.
Hacks, written by Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs, isn’t a time-travel story. It’s a comedy-drama about two pathologically isolated women – wealthy, famous 70-year-old stand-up Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and broke, barely known TV writer Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) – whose bumpy kinship helps them to evolve as people. They start out selfish, self-absorbed and seeing relationships with other people solely in terms of transaction. Ava has no friends and uses people in her endless ‘hustle’ to get new gigs and career opportunities. Deborah has no friends (but, after a decades-long career in show business, plenty of enemies), and everybody in her life is paid to be there. Even Deborah’s daughter DJ (Kaitlin Olson) sells paparazzi photos of her mother to make rent, something Deborah secretly colludes with to maintain DJ’s illusion of financial independence. Deborah’s money is her armour.
Deborah’s other armour is the quality that made her fortune to begin with – her wit. She’s a famous acerbic stand-up, a take-down comic with an ageing audience who love her waspish one-liners. Or as Ava puts it in that car-crash job interview: a hack.
Deborah’s comedy is tired and outdated at the beginning of Hacks because she refuses to work with a writing partner. She’s steadfastly self-reliant, something we understand early on when we watch her change a heavy soda fountain gas canister in the kitchen of her multi-million dollar Las Vegas mansion. Deborah’s not just any millionaire diva, that gas canister tells us, she’s compulsively self-sufficient. This is no ditzy, desperate basket case (apologies to Ava for the mentally ableist slur) but a canny business woman who goes through her own receipts and trusts nobody. And no wonder. Everybody Deborah has trusted in the past betrayed her. Historically, her business manager stole her money and her sister stole her husband. Why wouldn’t she change her own gas canister?
Ava’s self-reliance wasn’t learned from betrayal but from loneliness. Unlike Deborah, she’s an only child who used to draw faces on her pillows to have somebody to talk to. Ava grew up as a Queer progressive in a small Massachusetts town where her dysfunctional outsider status drew her to the L.A. comedy scene. There, instead of finding her tribe, she remained a dysfunctional outsider. She didn’t make friends, and we meet her having been dumped by her girlfriend, actor Ruby (Lorenza Izzo) and ostracised for making an insensitive joke on Twitter. She’s annoying, blame-y and barely in control of herself.
But like Deborah, what Ava has going for her is wit. By working for Deborah and gradually shortening the distance between their miles-apart positions on everything in life (Deborah’s old-school, Ava’s woke; Deborah’s disciplined, Ava’s chaotic; Deborah’s work is cynical and safe, Ava has a youthfully idealistic belief in honesty and risk…) they improve each other. They thaw, learn, and rub off on each other (not literally, despite the sex dream Ava has about Deborah early on in the first flush of her crush on this woman who expects more of her than anybody else ever has). If that sounds mawkish, it isn’t. It’s insightful.
By the end of season two, Deborah and Ava have grown so much together that the only possible move for their new partnership is separation. It’s not what the viewers want, it’s not what Ava wants, but it’s what Deborah knows has to happen. It was Ava who taught her that there’s a trap in being comfy and that risks can be worth taking and so, in perhaps her first selfless act in decades, Deborah fires Ava for Ava’s sake. It’s time for her mean, funny Bambi-daughter-self to use those wobbly legs out on the ice of LA.
Ava’s next steps are of great interest to the Hacks audience. Will she stumble? (Oh, absolutely). Will she make it work with Ruby? (Perhaps). Will she cope alone? (Hopefully). Speaking of which, how will talent agents Jimmy and Kayla (co-creator Paul W. Downs and Megan Stalter), newly free of the agency their fathers co-founded, fare out there? And Deborah’s CEO Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), another character who’s only now learning how to exist outside of his career? Season three needs to continue these stories.
And others. Few shows shore up their main cast with supporting characters as strong and entertaining as those in Hacks. From breakout favourite Kayla to Poppy Liu’s croupier Kiki, Laurie Metcalf’s Weed to Harriet Sansom Harris’ ex-comic Susan, from Ava’s mother Jane Adams to Susie Essman’s director Elaine, there are so many possibilities for future stories in future episodes outside of the Deborah/Ava core.
Most of all though, season three needs to keep Deborah moving forwards. If her story is about late-in-life self-knowledge, or, to paraphrase Greek lyric poet Pindar – as Deborah and Ava would never be ridiculous enough to do – becoming such as she is, having learned what that is, Deborah still has a white whale out there: her sister. Last seen running from Deborah’s Rolls Royce as she tried to run her over in a parking lot, Kathy Vance is surely the endgame of Deborah’s story. Hacks season three (or four, or five… We already know that Deborah’s pill regime is keeping her alive until the age of 109) needs to see Deborah tackling her sister’s betrayal, with Ava or without her, learning, laughing, and fucking it up along the way.
Hacks seasons 1 and 2 are available to stream on HBO Max in the US and on Amazon’s Prime Video in the UK.