The mentorship story is one many of us have encountered over the years, but HBO Max’s Hacks is spinning that familiar tale into something unique with the help of some seriously talented stars.
The comedy tells the story of Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), a seasoned comedian with a Las Vegas residency that’s being threatened by younger acts like Pentatonix. Hard-pressed to hold onto her regular schedule, she begrudgingly agrees to work with 25-year-old comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) who has become a bit of an outcast herself following some colorful comments on Twitter.
“I just think that the characters are very unusual,” Smart teases. “There’s nothing stereotypical about them or the relationship. I think it constantly surprised us… and that’s the fun of it also, they’re funnier than most. They’re juicy.” It’s through their humor that Deborah and Ava will find common ground, but it isn’t easy at first.
“These circumstances and these women and their individual lives are incredibly unique,” Einbinder shares. “And it is split tonally between comedy and drama, so you really are getting both of those areas with these characters that you maybe you don’t often see together.”
Joining Deborah and Ava for the ride is Deborah’s daughter DJ (Kaitlin Olson), who causes some chaos with her exploits. “I think you really care about each one of these characters because they’re written so well and so in depth,” Olson echoes. “It’s a comedy that’s dramatic. There’s true character work and storyline going on.”
Along with shining a light on these stories, Hacks also shows the dark underside of Las Vegas living for performers. While Deborah lives in an opulent mansion, Ava haunts one of the casinos where she’s staying in a room for free as part of her job.
But the most of the drama stems from Deborah’s desire to hold onto her residency dates. “She doesn’t want to give up that control,” Smart reveals. “She believes that’s her home and… she is the kind of person who doesn’t do well — unlike myself — with free time. I think that she’s got some demons and it’s just not in her to just take it easy and lie by the pool and read a book or look at a magazine.”
The fun is seeing what extremes she’ll go to in order to keep her prime timeslots with the help of Ava who doesn’t immediately warm up Deborah and vice versa. “It’s ironic because I think they have similar internal experiences,” Einbinder says.
“Ava was kind of a loner growing up,” Einbinder continues. “She was discovered pretty young, she dropped out of college to move to LA to start writing. And so a lot of her self-worth is rooted in her career.” So, while “their approach is different,” Einbinder says of Deborah and Ava, “their cores are very similar.”
While the mentor-mentee relationship is a little rocky, it’s nothing in comparison to Deborah and DJ’s mother-daughter bond, or rather, lack thereof. “DJ is not trustworthy,” Olson teases. When viewers first meet her she goes through a bit of a security pat-down in her own mother’s home. “There’s just always a struggle.”
“[DJ]’s always trying to prove to her mom that she is important or that she has her own special ideas and that she’s going to be successful on her own one day,” Olson continues. “Ultimately, it’s really not for anything other than trying to make her mom proud of her.”
As these ladies’ stories unfold, viewers also experience a master class in comedic acting from some of it’s best names. “I was thrilled because all the women parts in the show are so funny,” Smart shares. “Comedy has historically been sort of male-dominated and women just weren’t thought of as even being naturally as funny as men. So it’s fun to have a look at that industry and, at the same time, just have any story that has so many funny women in it.” We’ll applaud to that.
Hacks, Series Premiere, Thursday, May 13, HBO Max