Jean Smart is the very opposite of a hack.
She’s nailing it dramatically as Kate Winslet’s sardonic blue-collar mother on HBO’s Mare of Easttown, and as a Las Vegas entertainer who’s known better days on the HBO Max dramedy Hacks, she kills again in all the best ways.
As Deborah Vance, who’s hanging on to her casino-theater residency by a thread, with occasional detours to QVC to hawk merchandise, Smart finds dignity in indignity, swanning around her lonely mansion with its library of 30,000 jokes. (Think Phyllis Diller by way of Sunset Boulevard’s Gloria Swanson.) She’s serious about comedy, which is why it stings when she’s saddled by a callow agent with Ava (Hannah Einbinder), an ostracized and pretentious millennial comedy writer who thinks her new gig of punching up Deborah’s material is beneath her.
As if. The imbalance in Hacks’ odd-couple premise is that while every quip out of Deborah’s mouth is a hoot (“I was just wondering why you were dressed like Rachel Maddow’s mechanic”), nothing about the smug and whiny Ava suggests she’s comedically worthy of laundering her boss’s caftans. There’s only one hack here.
Smart’s best moment as the proverbial tough cookie comes early, when Deborah schools her not-quite-protegee on the tough knocks of show business. (We later learn that Deborah came within reach of becoming TV’s first female late-night host until personal scandal derailed her career.)
“You don’t know what hard is,” Deborah barks to this inexperienced avatar of unearned superiority. “Good is the minimum. It’s the baseline. You have to be so much more than good. And even if you’re great—and lucky!—you still have to work really f***ing hard. And even that is not enough. You have to scratch and claw, and it never f***ing ends. And it doesn’t get better. It just gets harder.”
Jean Smart is so much more than good that it almost isn’t funny. Except she really is, whether she’s cajoling the smarmy casino owner (Christopher McDonald) to not replace her with Pentatonix or riffing on stage with off-color jokes that are old enough to vote.
Race you to that front-row seat.
Hacks, Series Premiere, Thursday, May 13, HBO Max