"Hacks" creators on the final act & gloriousness of Jean Smart: "I feel like she is Deborah Vance"

Salon talks to Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky about creating a TV smash about underappreciated women

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published June 10, 2021 6:12PM (EDT)

Jean Smart in "Hacks" (HBO Max)
Jean Smart in "Hacks" (HBO Max)

Spoiler alert: The following story discusses details HBO Max's "Hacks," including the finale. Stop reading if you're not caught up on the show.

Jean Smart is here to stay. So is the incredible, hard-driving Deborah Vance, the hammering heart at the center of "Hacks." Viewers should expect nothing less from the Queen of Las Vegas, a comedian tossed aside by Hollywood only to retreat to the desert and build an empire there.

The end of the first season makes good on a promise mentioned in the premiere episode, showing the dedication ceremony for Deborah Vance Drive, a bustling thoroughfare right in front of the Las Vegas Convention Center – not a dead-end street with an abortion clinic on it, as Deborah once joked. But her boss and adversary Marty (Christopher McDonald) also fulfills his promise to dethrone her, in part, ending her weekend mainstage run at his casino.

Now that "Hacks" is officially returning for a second season, we know she's not done. For a moment it seemed as if she and her young writing partner Ava (Hannah Einbinder) might be, though. After finally forging an affectionate, supportive working relationship and earning her trust, Ava gets an unexpected call about an opportunity to earn her way back into writing for TV.

But she keeps it from Deborah, secretly flying back to L.A. to take a meeting that ends up being a Faustian offer – she can write for a show that'll probably be a hit, but only if she's willing to sell out her new boss.

Deborah rewards loyalty and drive. This is the first lesson Ava learns from her earliest days with Deborah, and the Queen reminds her when she discovers her vassal lied to her. That betrayal makes Deborah question everything, including Ava's suggestion that she end her Palmetto stint with a confessional-style show, a la Hannah Gadsby's "Nanette."

We don't witness that final performance, but series creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs (who also plays Deborah and Ava's manager) and Jen Statsky take the route that makes for the best TV, not to mention broader possibilities for the next season.

Throughout this season, though, "Hacks" challenges every kiln-baked concept we hold about intergenerational conflict in the workplace, especially with regard to the continued viability of older women in the workforce and the perceived lack of dues-paying among younger ones.

Overtly it does this by showing the ways that Deborah makes Ava better, and vice versa. But some of the best moments are subversive, as in "$1.69 million," when the Queen of Vegas witnesses an untalented misogynist harassing a young female comedian purchases his anonymity for a lifetime.

The idea for "Hacks" first came to Aniello, Downs and Statsky in 2016 when the trio noticed that so many of the comics hailed as geniuses and receiving lifetime achievement awards are men. Wondering what happened to comedy's pioneering women led them to create Deborah, and Ava along with her – and television, along with life, is better for that inspiration.

Recently Salon chatted with the three creators and writers of "Hacks" about the first season, the thinking that went into Deborah's choice to instantly make a sexist pig a millionaire and, naturally, the flawlessness of Jean Smart. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This season is extraordinary in the way that it that portrays intergenerational relationships in a professional space, and particularly in the comedy business. What was it about that dynamic that appealed to you?

Paul W. Downs: I think one thing that is interesting about comedy is that because it oftentimes seeks to satirize or be a reflection of culture, it's really I think, in a way, speaking to the generational divide that we're showcasing. But also it was really personal to us, obviously, because as comedy writers and lovers of comedy, I think the underappreciated female comic was really something that we wanted to explore. And we wanted to explore that especially through someone who is closer to our generation.

Not only do we hope this is a love letter to those comedians who maybe didn't get the same acclaim as their male counterparts, but also to the countless female comedians we can't even name because either they quit doing comedy, or we were never exposed to them because they didn't have the same opportunities and advantages that men did.

You all began putting this together in 2016, right? Which was long before #MeToo, and lots of the conversations around general sexism that came the fore. So how much of that drove the shaping of this season's arc?

Lucia Aniello: I think, at least for us, it came from really this idea of re-contextualizing women's experiences, and by being able to put them front and center of the narrative.

And by immediately just doing that, doing it from the point of view of a woman or two women, it immediately changes the way that we see any woman's experience, right? So in our show, we are able to see through Ava a younger, perhaps some might say, more entitled comedy writer. She not only sees the path forged for her by this woman, but she also starts to understand that the difficult path also gives her so much more to talk about.

So often comedy is about the new face in comedy – what's the hot new actor, or person on "SNL," whatever it is – but to me the most poignant, interesting comedy is the kind that comes from experience.

And there are so many older comedians male or female, but especially female, who really don't oftentimes get to tell their stories, or have their specials or have their shows, especially at a certain point. One of the many things we're trying to say with the show is it's really time to listen to these women who've actually experienced things, and guess what? They've really been through the s**t and they have a lot to say, and they're really f**king funny. So why don't we just sit back and start listening to them?

Downs: Can I maybe just add that, you're right, this was before like the #MeToo movement. What's interesting though is we had sort of seeds of ideas for things like the comedy club stuff long before. And I guess it's because we know women go through that kind of thing . . . The same is true of wanting to tell a story about a woman that maybe the world didn't get right. Now that's happening more and more with Paris Hilton, or Britney Spears or whatever.

That was an interesting kind of fantasy moment, with Deborah paying someone who's a sexist pig to never get on a stage or podcast and basically to shut up for the rest of his life, and for what seems like would be a huge amount of money, but to Deborah is a pittance. And I had a couple of reactions that. One, of course, was cheering along. The other was thinking, "This is a guy who basically was a complete jerk, and wound up with $1.69 million." I would love to hear about the conversation and decision making that went into that moment.

Jen Statsky:  You're exactly right, that episode was heavily discussed in the writers' room. And you're right, it's a cathartic moment. But, at least to me,  it's also  tragic in a way because it's this kind of vigilante justice. The truth is in the real world, comedy clubs still are not a fully safe place for women and minorities and people who are not straight white cis males a lot of the time.

We talked about it a lot about, yes, the money is something she's giving him to make him go away . . .  But it's a little bit like, for lack of a better term, blood money because it's money Deborah made under the patriarchy. We always said she leaned into being the joke, that the only way she felt she could stick around was by letting the narrative be dictated by other people. And she got wildly successful and made a lot of money doing that. But maybe she's realizing a little bit like, oh, was the money worth it if I wasn't able to speak my truth? That's obviously very much a big message of the first season.

Aniello: In terms of the actual money, I understand what you're saying: "Wow, this jerk just got $1.69 million. How is that really a victory?" But I do feel that based on the little she knows of him, I think it's safe to say, at least in my opinion, that he won't use it wisely. That it was almost a trick. She knows that it will make him miserable . . . I suppose you could live on it forever, but I have a feeling this guy's going to go and buy a speedboat.

Statsky: Whatever Elon Musk is selling, he's buying. And that's going to cut into his fortune big time.

The symbolism of Deborah living in Vegas has been discussed quite a bit. But was it a conscious decision to never have her go back to L.A. in this first season? Obviously Ava does, but I'm wondering if you intentionally decided that Deborah should not go back.

Downs: We wanted to keep her in her self-made fortress, you know, in the desert – where she feels safe in this sort of lawless town. And I mean, I don't want to spoil something that might happen, but we've always talked about if she has to take an Uber for a very long time, what that would look like. [He laughs.] But no, we never really wanted to bring her to L.A. or anywhere else in the first season.

Aniello: She is still so psychologically in this place where she needs to have this protection of her home and her manor and her people and everything. That's where she feels safe. So yeah, no, we like keeping her there for now.

And then there's the decision she makes in the last episode between doing a confessional, modern storytelling version of comedy, versus what she's done, classic stand-up, which was a big leap. Besides the fact that it simply made for good TV, can you talk about the decision to have her bomb? Was there ever a question that she was not going to do well, and how did that manifest?

Aniello: It was actually something that evolved over the season. And I think part of it is wanting to keep the truth as always our North Star here. Like, what would really happen? And the truth is, this is an hour long special of something totally new genre-wise to her that she hasn't even tested out in front of an audience. It would be almost fantastical for it to kill. It's new territory for her, and it's exciting to consider the idea that they will continue to get to refine it and argue about it and discover things in it. And to me, creating what is Deborah's story has only just begun in so many ways. And I think we're really excited to see where that can go still in so many ways.

Downs: I mean, in the eighth episode she says "I missed the nerves you get not knowing that you're just gonna kill," you know. Because I do think when you get to a certain level, it's an easier audience for you. So I think that was exciting to us to be like, well, truthfully, she probably wouldn't kill – and also, isn't that fun for her to be turned on by it, to be really excited by having bombed?

"Hacks" has rekindled the celebration of Jean Smart's excellence which, yes. And of course it's coincidental that this is running on HBO Max at the same time as "Mare of Easttown." I think I read that the season that you didn't initially write this with her in mind?

Aniello: Listen, we didn't write the pilot with her in mind, but we had her attached for the season. So we did write the season for her.

Understood! That's important to know. What is it about her that makes her perfect in this role?

Statsky: We were so lucky to have her sign on, after we wrote the pilot. And I think the reason Jean is so perfect in this role, and it honestly couldn't be anyone else, is because for so many reasons in addition to her immense talent, she also perfectly embodies the tone of the show. She is so deeply, deeply funny, but she also is such an incredibly talented, dramatic actress.

We've said this before, but when we made that list of like, who can do this, she was at the top of it, and it's not a long list, and she just delivered for us on every possibly conceivable level.

Downs: I'd like just to add to that the other thing that she embodies, I think, is the theme of the show, which is about underappreciated women.

For me, she was always someone whenever I saw her in something, I always wanted more of her. I was always like, "More Jean Smart!" And it's so exciting that now in this lead role, where she gets to show her complete range, I do feel like people are having a deepened understanding and appreciation for all that she can do. In that way, I feel like she is Deborah Vance.

Aniello: And part of what we're saying is, is why did it take so long?

Statsky: And which other women didn't we give that chance to?

The first season of "Hacks" is available to stream on HBO Max.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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