"She's suffering no fools": "Hacks" guest star Helen Hunt weighs in on the finale's shark attack

Helen Hunt offers some insights about her top exec and why she relates to Deborah most of all

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 31, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Helen Hunt in "Hacks" (Max)
Helen Hunt in "Hacks" (Max)

The following contains spoilers for "Hacks" Season 3 finale "Bulletproof"

Comedy loves a good callback. In this regard “Hacks” rewards viewers who listen keenly to every bit of wisdom its comedy legend Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) shares with comedy writer Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder). Every moment in its third season finale “Bulletproof” was set up by previous episodes. Seeing the sock-in-the-jaw closer before it hit, however, required remembering a line Deborah shares with Ava in the second season’s final episode.

“You've got to be a shark,” she tells the younger woman. “You've got do what’s best for you.”

She lovingly adds, “I told you . . . you’re just like me. You got your own mountain to climb.”

Ava may not have learned everything she needs to know about the TV business from Deborah but she certainly mastered her mentor’s greatest lesson: when it comes to getting what you want, fight dirty.

Ava’s sharp writing, along with backstage machinations enacted by her manager Jimmy (Paul W. Downs) and his wildcard of a partner Kayla (Meg Stalter) helped Deborah become the first woman to host a broadcast network’s late-night show. This was history delayed; she had the job decades ago only to have it ripped from her, derailed by a spate of bad publicity.

HacksJean Smart in "Hacks" (Max)The retired executive responsible for that decision (played by Hal Linden) tells her as much when she drops in for a business visit. She was undeniable, he tells her, but toxic PR resulting from her envious ex-husband spreading a rumor she burned down their home in a fury meant none of that mattered. 

”There are a million factors to getting a show on the air or keeping it on the air. With a woman, make it a million and one,” Linden’s former network head tells her. “. . . All you gotta do is pray that something doesn’t happen that gives them an excuse to say no. Other than that, good luck.”

Helen Hunt, the “Mad About You” star who plays the network’s current boss Winnie Landell, knows a little something about that. In a pre-finale conversation with Salon, the Emmy- and Oscar-winning actor shared that she based her top entertainment executive on several high-powered people she’s worked with over the years.

But in “Hacks,” Deborah is the character to whom she relates the most. In Hunt's career as a writer and director she remembers a female studio head telling her that a script she’d written needed to be irrefutable, and perfect, because every major person involved was a woman. Place a male director and actors in the same scenario, the exec pointed out, and it only needed to be really good to go forward.

“That's a little bit I think, what's happening in this moment. Jean’s character has to run through 30 more hoops than a man might,” Hunt said knowingly. But the same applies to Winnie, who balked at handing a historically male legacy job to a 70-year-old woman – despite, as Hunt points out, that Winnie sits at her career peak at 60. 

“If suddenly, there was a woman succeeding in one of those spots, might it change something kind of big?” Hunt asked. “I think it might.”

“I'm guessing that it's all the more important that she not blow it here, you know, making this big choice,” Hunt observed. “It's not a cliché to say, women have a smaller eye of the needle to pass through, you know. Less chances to make a mistake.”

Whatever bad luck there is that could show up in Deborah’s path may be of her own making. When she originally lost late-night, the tale that nuked Deborah’s odds was spurred by her husband leaving her for her sister Kathy (played by J. Smith-Cameron in Season 3). 

HacksJean Smart and Hannah Einbinder in "Hacks" (Max)This time, Deborah makes the unwise choice to betray Ava by doing something worse than firing her for Ava’s own good.  She offers Ava the head writer job on her new show, prompting her to turn down a head writer position at her very cushy present gig, an equivalent position at “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”

Right after the ink on that resignation letter has dried, Deborah demotes Ava to second chair, telling her that Winnie is requiring her to hire the previous host’s head writer.

Only that’s not true – a twist that made Hunt like her character even more. “If she's allowing Deborah to make her own choice, I think that's smart,” she said. “Some of the worst TV shows have come when you hire a creator, and then tell them what to do rather than saying, ‘Now I’ve got to sink or swim based on their choices.’  Because having them drive with the brake on and not get to choose their own people isn't good.”

We need your help to stay independent

Ava tells Deborah as much, reminding the comic that she knows her and that the two of them work together brilliantly. That, Ava points out, will make their show special versus what the previous head writer offers – the same shtick, except in a dress.

But Deborah claims to know networks would rather take more of the same than something new, tossing an insulting proposal to Ava in the process. “You can still do all the work! You can be the woman behind the man behind the woman!”

Ava responds with explosive indignation – she has a right to it. “I am not asking for the business or the world to be fair,” she says with tears in her eyes. “I am asking for you to treat me fairly because you owe me that.”

But Deborah is unmoved, telling her to stop crying. “I cannot give them any excuse,” she declares as her final word. “This show has to be bulletproof. It has to work. I’ve lost way too much for it not to.” If she has to lose Ava as part of that, “I’m willing to,” she says.

“I relate to the Deborah character because I grew up on Johnny Carson,” Hunt admitted in our interview. “And if I watch late-night TV, I watch all of those guys. I think they're all amazing. It is a way to take the horror of the news, and somehow swallow the spiky truth of it and come up with something with a little bit of humor.

“If suddenly, there was a woman succeeding in one of those spots, might it change something kind of big?” Hunt asked. “I think it might.”

HacksHannah Einbinder in "Hacks" (Max)Ava thinks so too, appearing to swallow her bitterness the way Deborah says she does by purchasing a bottle of Champagne Krug to drink by herself. 

Then she shows up early for her first day on the job for a face-to-face with Deborah in the network meeting room, where she threatens to let slip a potentially devastating secret Deborah shared in confidence. During a strategic golf retreat for network affiliates on which Ava accompanied her, Deborah slept with the CEO of the network’s parent company.

Therefore, Ava confidently says, “I think I am your head writer after all.”

“You wouldn’t,” Deborah growls in Ava’s face. Only this time she doesn’t flinch or make any other conciliatory move that would show weakness. She meets her mentor’s gaze and answers, “I would. Wouldn’t you?”

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

In Hunt’s assessment of her character’s view of the cutthroat network TV game, she believes someone like Winnie Lindell would put Deborah in the late-night host’s chair as part of changing some very big things. “She's suffering no fools, and she's smart,” Hunt said. “She might be tough, but she's paid to be tough because you only get one shot at this.”

The same might be said of Ava and the future “Hacks” might have in store for her. At the end of the day, Deborah and Ava are meant for each other for reasons other than their chemistry and affection. They show that to succeed in Hollywood, you have to be a little vicious. Hunt’s character takes out her rage on the pickleball court, where she slaps around people like Jimmy and bets serious money on her games.

Ava wagers something more valuable than a few thousand dollars – her loyalty to the woman who gave her a second chance when nobody else would, punishing and pulling for her in equal measure all the way. That partnership might not survive this job, which might not matter. With her willingness to be a shark and look out for herself, not to mention many years of her career ahead of her, Ava might end up running the whole show.

All episodes of "Hacks" are streaming on Max.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Hacks Hannah Einbinder Helen Hunt Interview Jean Smart Max