One of HBO Max’s breakout hits (well, at least that’s what social media tells us), “Hacks” has been the third jewel in the Jean Smart renaissance that began with “Watchmen” and was followed by definite ratings hit, “Mare of Easttown.” Of course, you could argue that the veteran Hollywood actor never went anywhere or that her “comeback” really started with an Emmy-nominated turn in the second season of “Fargo” or maybe her run in another FX standout, “Legion.” Whatever the case, Smart has gotten more deserved attention and admiration than she has in years, and her fans are here for it.
In “Hacks,” Smart portrays Deborah Vance, a legendary standup comedienne (think Joan Rivers meets Rita Rudner) who has used the platform of her regular show at a Las Vegas resort to turning her endorsement and name into a legitimate moneymaking corporation. When the casino owner (Christopher McDonald) attempts to replace her booking with a “younger” act, she begins a desperate campaign to do anything she can to keep her dates. That includes taking the advice of her agent and bringing in a Gen Z television writer, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), to spice up her material. Desperate for work after being canceled for an inappropriate tweet, the last place Ava wants to be is in Vegas working for Vance. Over the course of 10 episodes, though, they begin to bond. Eventually, Ava convinces Vance to transform her act into a more personal recollection of her career and to tell the truth about the more sensational lies that the public continues to believe are true (such as burning her ex-husband’s house down).
At this point, spoilers are ahead. So, if you haven’t watched the final two episodes, you’re in danger of some serious final episode revelations.
Co-created by “Broad City” veterans Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky, “Hacks” ends on a major cliffhanger (actually, you could argue it ends on more than one). As to why the trio would go in that direction when a second season on a fledgling streamer was never a given, well, some might just call it guts. Others might say they were brave, but Downs?
“It was just sheer boldness,” Downs says. “And also, we really just like stories that draw us in and make us want to watch every week.”
The showrunners also surprisingly decided not to show any of Vance’s “final show,” which she eventually tells Ava she “bombed.” Besides the fact it allowed the writers to keep a lot of that material for next season, Statsky also admitted there is a legitimate question of how much stand up is too much stand up for a fictional character to do in a series. But, again, considering how important the new act was in the lead-up to the final episode, it’s a gutsy choice that worked.
What many viewers may not realize, however, is that Smart faced a life-changing loss just one week before filming was completed on the 10th episode. Smart’s husband of 34 years, actor Richard Gilliland, passed away due to an undetected heart ailment that had popped up just a few weeks prior. While Smart discussed his death on NPR’s “Fresh Air” last month, it wasn’t clear when it happened as the season was coming to an end. It turns out it took place with just one week to go.
That final episode finds Ava returning to her childhood home for her father’s funeral. When Deborah realizes that’s why Ava left town on the eve of her final show; she makes an appearance at the funeral. Naturally, she turns the event into a fun roast of Ava’s father, which cheers up everyone in attendance. Such a scene could be upsetting for any actor months after the loss of a loved one, but the week after? What made Smart go forward with it?
“That was unfortunately shot afterward and, you know, Jean…I’ll just say this,” Aniello says. “She is somebody who is so committed to the craft and such an incredible actor, and not just for that, but anytime we’d say ‘Hey, this could make this a little easier if you want to do this instead of or that instead.’ and she’d most always ‘No, this is what it says. This is what I’m gonna do.’ So she’s always going to put herself mind, body, and spirit on the line for what was written in the script [and] we wrote this and did a table read nine months prior.”
Downs adds, “She really wanted to finish the show. And she really wanted to be back on set with her set family. And we know how much the show and the character meant to her, so in that respect, we wanted to do whatever she felt comfortable doing. And she really wanted to come back and finish, and I think it’s just a testament to how incredible she was.”
One reason why Smart may have also been committed is that despite roles on “Designing Women,” “Fraiser,” “24” and a stage career that saw her earn a Tony Award nomination in 2001, the three-time Emmy winner has referred to the character of Deborah Vance as her “dream role.”
“I think, I hope, it’s her dream role because she gets to showcase her whole versatility, which is expansive, and she’s so incredibly good,” Statsky says. “And I don’t know if she’s ever really had a chance to play the full range of what she can do.”
Beyond Smart and Einbinder, “Hacks” also features a stellar supporting cast, including Downs as Smart’s manager Jimmy, Megan Stalter as Jimmy’s eye-brow raising assistant Kayla, Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Debroah’s COO Marcus, and Kaitlin Olson as DJ, Debroah’s adult daughter. In addition, fans should rest assured that Kayla, who made inappropriate moves on her boss, will be back for season two.
Downs jokes, “You know that in the same way, we left it on a cliffhanger with Deborah and Anna’s relationship? Well, we know Barbara from H.R. is gonna have something to say [about Kayla]. “
Aniello adds, “I think that is our official casting call for Barbara.”
“Hacks” season one is available on HBO Max.