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Hacks and the subversive fantasy of letting your job consume you

Maybe Deborah Vance is built different.

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Jean Smart as Deborah Vance in Hacks, a show I very much enjoy!
Hacks/HBO Max
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Hacks is a show about comedy, but its best bits aren’t funny at all.

Its stellar first season is both an introduction to and canny portrait of Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), an aging Vegas headliner maneuvering the terms of her employment while simultaneously reflecting on her fears of obsolescence and her ambition to be loved. All of Deborah’s desires and fears overlap, bleeding through any possible personal and professional boundaries. Somehow, this force of nature finds clarity in an annoying bisexual millennial named Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a comedy writer who is allegedly somewhat amusing on Twitter.

The wake-up call Ava brings isn’t pleasant. Ava thinks Deborah is on cruise control, playing it safe with her comedy because Vegas crowds don’t care to be dared. Ava’s right and Deborah knows it, but acknowledging that is humiliating. It’s embarrassing not just because Ava is entitled and insufferable and admitting she’s correct would only exacerbate those qualities, but because it also means that Deborah Vance has lost touch of who she is.

For Ava, writing for Deborah is humbling in its own way. She’s alienating to others and she hasn’t made her own name; she doesn’t have any other options.

Deborah and Ava’s symbiotic relationship, the weird bits and volatile moments especially, bring each one closer to a better sense of who they are — a gift, especially in the lonely landscape that is comedy.

Deborah and Ava take a road trip in season two of Hacks.
Hacks/HBO Max

The fantastic second season builds on that initial chapter. Hacks hits the ground running, with Deborah and Ava flying back from Ava’s father’s funeral in preparation for Deborah’s North American tour. Having bombed her final performance at the Palmetto, her residency on the Strip, Deborah knows her material isn’t good yet. They both need a challenge. So they do the logical thing: Deb and Ava get on a bus. (A luxury tour bus, but still.)

Journeys of self-discovery are an obsession in American art. Worn down by life, protagonist after protagonist swaps the comfort of their lives for the woods, or the canyons, or places where they can learn anew to eat and pray and love. These uncomfortable treks become opportunities for crystallizing self-examination that nourish the soul and reignite the spark of life. Maybe they even find love.

Deborah Vance wouldn’t mind any of that, but she just wants better jokes.

So she swaps out cosmopolitan Las Vegas (not to be confused with the Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas) for more bucolic America, like Memphis, a lesbian cruise, and a state fair in one of the Springfields — rigorous, punishing places. Deborah hopes to sharpen her barbs, slim down her transitions, and find the crackle in her sputtering punchlines.

The road trip makes Deborah’s interior struggles real. She’s been having trouble connecting with her audience, and these uncomfortable venues have their own defensive challenges, like culture gaps or an audience that isn’t quite Deborah’s demographic. Each one is more alien to Deborah than the last. She bombs at some. She does better at others. Aside from a couple of pure slapstick moments, we don’t actually see her perform — a deliberate choice.

Hacks hasn’t ever been concerned with convincing you that Deborah is the funniest woman alive. It’s always been a show about a woman realizing who she is, and being honest to that person, whoever that may be. One night of laughs with an audience isn’t going to solve that.

Jean Smart’s performance has been (correctly) heaped with praise, but I’m still continually impressed at how she imbues Deborah Vance with delicate dignity. It might manifest in something as small as an unguarded glance in a mirror.

Or it unfurls so powerfully that it’s all you think about long after the episode ends.

In the Springfield state fair episode, Deborah meets a former rival who gave up comedy. Her friend is now a grandmother with an uninteresting life, drawing pity from Deborah. But after their brief meeting, when Deborah realizes that her former compatriot is actually happy with her choices, you can see Smart dim the pride in Deborah’s eyes and fill her face with doubt.

In those tiny moments, you can see flashes of the life Deborah Vance has lived and almost relate to this mean, fancy woman who you’re absolutely not supposed to.

Deborah is wistful, but she doesn’t for a second wish that she could live a full life without comedy. Instead, her regret is not living a full life of comedy without the distraction of family, friends, and marriages.

The way Deborah interprets the world around her — its ills, its tragedy, its happiness — is through comedy, a notoriously fickle artform. If Deborah’s life flashed before her eyes, it would consist of standup, her late-night show, her missed opportunities, her Vegas residency. The montage wouldn’t include her husband, her child, her sister’s betrayal, or her husband’s death. To Deborah, nothing really matters if it isn’t related to comedy.

Kaitlin Olson and Jean Smart in Hacks, a show that is, despite its name, not about cybersecurity.
Hacks/HBO Max

Hacks works this season because you slowly realize that this road trip is a total gamble for Deborah. There is no backup plan. Who she is, the way she needs the world to see her, her understanding of joy and pain — it’s all on the line. This comedy tour is a matter of her own survival.

But is that all too ghoulish, too narcissistic to admit?

It makes sense then that Deborah has surrounded herself with people like her devoted CEO Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) and Ava, her hard-headed protege. These two people — by choice or because they have no other options — are exactly like Deborah: completely consumed and defined by the job. Marcus uses Deborah’s dependency on him running her business as an anchor; it prevents him from spinning out. Ava’s gig with Deborah is more of a life preserver. Writing for Deb is the only thing happening in her life, as Ava is indecently good at burning opportunities.

Like attracts like, I guess. Ava and Marcus might not agree, though. They just have enough distance (for now) that they may or may not see themselves in Deborah. They’re slowly inching toward a point of no return, or if they’re lucky, a “stop before it’s too late” moment.

But Hacks doesn’t quite fall into that mode. It’s more of a question of: Are Marcus and Ava built like Deborah or not? Could they have a life just devoted to work and be happy? Wouldn’t it be nice to be that in love with your job and know that’s what you want to do? That, in its own way, is a subversive little fantasy.

The first two episodes of Hacks are available to stream on HBO Max.

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