There has never been a time in the history of television in which the term “comedy” has encompassed such a broad range of works as it does now. Decades ago, “comedy” was easy to understand: it either meant sitcom or some kind of variety show. Now, that genre could include any number of TV series, from the traditional sitcom format to mockumentaries to satires to whatever PEN15 is classified as. Just a glance at the past few years of Emmy nominees for Outstanding Comedy Series would make one wish there was some kind of yearly State of the TV Comedy to try and explain where this genre has come from, where it is now, and where it may be going.
That is, of course, a tall order. I would argue, though, that that is exactly what Hacks, last year’s critically-acclaimed HBO Max series, which premiered April 1 in the UK on Prime Video, has done.
The premise is simple. Deborah Vance, played by the effortlessly brilliant Jean Smart, was once a big-time comedian, and a pioneer for women in comedy, who is stuck doing a Vegas residency that is struggling to do numbers. Meanwhile, Ava Daniels, played by Hannah Einbinder, is a young comedy writer struggling to find work after the fallout from an insensitive tweet. Their shared agent suggests they work together, even though they instantly despise each other.
It’s not the most original set-up. The classic “they hate each other but they need each other and now they’re starting to like each other” plotline has been done in virtually every genre a dozen times over. And yet, for a show like Hacks, beginning with an unoriginal set-up is kind of the point, because the show itself serves as a kind of commentary on TV comedies as a genre. The series may begin seeming unoriginal, but it swerves quickly and ends up delivering punchlines and emotional pay-offs that are wholly original and clearly contemporary.
This is most obvious in the clear intergenerational differences between the styles of comedy that Deborah and Ava utilize, both in their work and their everyday conversations. Deborah relies heavily on the classic setup-punchline format and works within the boundaries of the social status quo, with jokes that often punch at traditional gender roles. There’s a rhythm to her jokes that is funny, but, well, predictable. Ava, meanwhile, has a contemporary style of humour that is befitting of someone on the gen-z/millennial line. Her jokes are slicker, more absurd, and generally formatless. Everything she says sounds like it would fit just as well in a TikTok as it would at a cocktail party. She uses her humour to push boundaries and reject tradition, which means she sometimes falls flat. Hacks uses this difference in style as a marker of where comedy has been and where it is now.
The casting choices, too, are very purposeful in how they reflect this. Smart is someone who was a pioneer when she became famous for her roles in Frasier and Designing Women, but who saw a dip in her career for many years and has only recently been as appreciated as she deserves. Einbinder, on the other hand, has only a handful of credits to her name, and was on the way up in the world of stand-up when the pandemic abruptly put a pause on that ascent. As such, the series serves as a kind of hand-off from one generation to the next.
Of course, considering how contemporary the writing in Hacks feels, you might expect the series to favour Ava and her comedic styles over Deborah’s. Indeed, Ava often ridicules Deborah’s jokes as old-fashioned, formulaic, and out-of-touch with modern society, and in many ways, Hacks is equally critical of the old style of TV comedy from which both Deborah and Smart come from.
And yet, the lesson Ava quickly learns is that today’s comedies could not exist without the groundwork laid by the ones of old, and unlike most effective commentaries, Hacks is surprisingly blunt with this message. In the second episode, while discussing the potential material Ava has written, Deborah critiques her young style of comedy. “Jokes need a punchline,” she says. “In my opinion, traditional joke structure is very male. It’s so focused on the ending. It’s all about the climax, “ Ava responds. It’s a beautiful piece of irony, because Ava’s criticism of Deborah actually copies that traditional joke structure, with a setup-punchline format and a low-hanging joke about gender roles. Ava’s humour is so obviously indebted to Deborah’s style without her even realizing it.
It quickly becomes clear that Deborah and Ava are equally funny in different ways, and the best trick the show pulls is in the melding of their two styles over the course of the first season. Ava eventually hones her rhythm, and Deborah gets less formulaic. Hacks as a show teaches the same lessons to the viewer that Ava and Deborah learn from each other, and it does so in a way that somehow feels obvious and yet incredibly witty.
What is perhaps the smartest thing about the show, though, is that for a show that serves as a commentary on the state of TV comedy, the writing often defies genre. This is perhaps another lesson that Deborah learns from Ava about contemporary humour. Repeatedly, Ava pushes Deborah out of her comfort zone and insists that she incorporate more tragic elements of her life into her stand-up. In doing so, she makes it clear that in today’s age of comedy, it isn’t enough to just be funny. Audiences want three-dimensional comedians, not two-dimensional joke-spitters. As a result, the series’ writing has a level of depth that wasn’t found in the TV comedies of old.
Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder have incredible chemistry from the moment their uneasy working relationship starts. It’s easy to say, because of their age gap that it’s a mother-daughter relationship but that doesn’t do it justice. It’s truly heartwarming to see Ava warming to and admiring Deborah’s life and career. The series excels at every level but the central relationship is the key to its magic.
It’s deeply empathetic, thought-provoking, ironic, exploratory, heartbreaking, and wholly original. So, if you’re trying to understand where TV comedy has been and where it’s going, Hacks is ready to explain.
Hacks is available in the UK on Prime Video. It is currently streaming on HBO Max and will return later this year for a second season.