There’s a saying about comedy that’s been attributed to the very wise Mark Twain: “Humor is tragedy plus time.” The best comedy makes us laugh, reflect and most importantly, feel.
Very few television shows deliver the perfect mix of laugh-out-loud humor and heartfelt drama but HBO Max’s Hacks is a brilliant blend of life’s hilarities and its many challenges. There are only a few dramedy-slash-tragicomedies that come to mind that nail this so well, including Liz Feldman’s Dead to Me and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag.
The first 10-episode season of Hacks introduced the viewers to Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), a legendary comedian whose longtime Las Vegas residency is threatened by a younger audience hungry for fresh talent. In comes Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a writer in her mid-twenties whose career is on the line after a controversial social media post alienates her from her peers and colleagues. Both are at a career crossroads and they learn that they need one another to turn things around.
They share a manager, Jimmy (Paul W. Downs), and soon Ava is off to Vegas to meet with Deborah to discuss a position to write for her show. Jimmy and his assistant Kayla (Megan Stalter) don’t do anything by the book and Deborah has no idea Ava is en route and Ava has no idea there’s no official meeting on Deborah’s calendar. Needless to say, both are caught off guard and things go awry. Side note, Jimmy and Kayla are two of the funniest characters on television and their scenes are comedy gold.
Deborah and Ava begin a rocky but productive working relationship until it all goes to hell at the end of the first season. The eight-episode second season, which premiered on May 12, picks up right as the two women make amends and get back to work.
For Einbinder, nabbing this role was a life-changer. Now 26, she was 25 years old when cast. “This was the first time I auditioned for something and got it,” she said in a recent interview. “This undoubtedly changed everything for me.” Before Hacks, Einbinder dabbled in the L.A. comedy club scene doing stand-up. “I’d perform in coffee shops, bars, alleyways, you know,” she laughs.
The initial excitement, she added, was quickly replaced with another strong emotion. “I was happy for about 15 minutes and then terror set in. When I got the job I was so ecstatic and then it was a feeling of, ‘Oh no, I’m gonna f**k this up!’ because it’s so huge. I still cannot believe I survived and made this work.”
It’s no small feat to work alongside the likes of Smart, who won the Emmy Award for her role on Hacks in 2021 and was nominated for Emmys for recent hits Mare of Easttown and Watchmen. Einbinder has proven herself more than worthy of the shared screen time. She went on to earn a supporting actress Emmy nomination for her first TV role.
She has the raw talent but is savvy enough to understand that wouldn’t matter if the writing wasn’t superb. “Hacks is what you get when you allow people to be in charge of their narrative.” She points out how diverse the writers’ room is. “Our writers include women, LGBTQ, people of color…we have so many writers reflecting on their experiences. The show is so good because of them.”
When asked to describe the complicated relationship between Deborah and Ava, Einbinder says that though the two seem to be opposites, they’re more alike than either first realizes. “I think their emotional truths are aligned. They also share this common desperation to work and though they’re at different stages in their careers, they have that shared spark to do comedy.”
Ava, she adds, is like many young people her age. “She’s imperfect and trying desperately to be better. She has a stubborn exterior and she’s been a bit ruthless in the pursuit of her career, you know sort of barreling through the world without making many meaningful relationships. She’s got a long way to go but she’s a good person.”
As for series co-creator and writer, Jen Statsky, who created Hacks alongside Downs and Lucia Aniello, the original intent when pitching the series was to make a show with a relationship at its core between two women that was unlike anything else on television. “Their relationship is unique in that there is not a lot of media about two women who are both artists working together, specifically in comedy. We wanted to depict what that would look like. At its core is a deep friendship. Their lives wouldn’t have been as rich had they not met each other. Deborah was very much on auto-pilot and needed to shake things up and Ava pushes her to do honest material which is more rewarding.”
This fabulously funny cast includes Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Rose Abdoo, Christopher McDonald, Poppy Liu, Jane Adams, Kaitlin Olson and Lauren Weedman. Though neither Statsky nor Einbinder could confirm a third season, the fans are certainly holding out hope that the show will go on.