hacking is a show about comedy, but the best bits aren’t funny at all.
The amazing first season is both an introduction to and a sharp portrayal of Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), an aging Vegas headliner who maneuvers the terms of her employment while reflecting on her fear of aging and her ambition to be loved. All of Deborah’s desires and fears overlap and bleed through all possible personal and professional boundaries. Somehow, this force of nature finds clarity in an annoying bisexual millennial named Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a comedy writer who is said to be somewhat amusing on Twitter.
The wake-up call that Ava brings is not pleasant. Ava thinks Deborah is on cruise control and playing it safe with her comedy because the Vegas audience is afraid to be challenged. Ava is right and Deborah knows it, but admitting it is humiliating. It’s embarrassing not only because Ava is entitled and insufferable and admitting she’s right would only exacerbate those qualities, but because it also means Deborah Vance has lost touch with who she is.
For Ava, writing for Deborah is humble in its own way. She estranges from others and she has not made her own name; she has no other options.
Deborah and Ava’s symbiotic relationship, especially the weird bits and fleeting moments, bring each other closer to a better idea of who they are – a gift, especially in the lonely landscape that is comedy.
The fantastic second season builds on that first chapter. hacking takes off, with Deborah and Ava flying back from Ava’s father’s funeral in preparation for Deborah’s North American tour. After bombing her last gig at the Palmetto, her residence on the Strip, Deborah knows her material isn’t good yet. They both need a challenge. So they do the logical thing: Deb and Ava get on a bus. (A luxury tour bus, but still.)
Self-discovery journeys are an obsession in American art. Worn by life, protagonist after protagonist exchanges the comforts of their lives for the forests, or the canyons, or places where they can learn to eat, pray and love again. These uneasy journeys become opportunities for crystallizing self-examination that nourish the soul and rekindle the spark of life. They may even find love.
Deborah Vance wouldn’t mind any of that, but she just wants better jokes.
So she trades cosmopolitan Las Vegas (not to be confused with the Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas) for more rural America like Memphis, a lesbian cruise, and a state scholarship in one of the Springfields – stern, punishing places. Deborah hopes to sharpen her barbs, slim down her transitions and find the creaks in her sputtering punchlines.
The road trip makes Deborah’s inner struggle real. She struggles to connect with her audience, and these awkward locations have their own defensive challenges, such as culture gaps or an audience that doesn’t quite belong to Deborah. Each is more strange to Deborah than the last. She bombs some. She does better with others. Other than a few pure slapstick moments, we don’t really see her perform – a conscious choice.
hacking never tried to convince you that Deborah is the funniest woman in the world. It’s always been a show about a woman who realizes who she is and is honest with that person, whoever that may be. A night of laughing with an audience is not going to solve that.
Jean Smart’s performance has been (rightly) showered with praise, but I’m still in awe of how she imbues Deborah Vance with delicate dignity. It can manifest in something as small as an unguarded look in a mirror.
Or it unfolds so powerfully that it’s all you think about long after the episode ends.
On the Springfield State Fair episode, Deborah meets a former rival who gave up on comedy. Her boyfriend is now a grandmother with an uninteresting life, feeling sorry for Deborah. But after their brief encounter, when Deborah realizes that her former compatriot is actually happy with her choices, you see Smart dim the pride in Deborah’s eyes and fill her face with doubt.
In those little moments, you can see flashes of the life Deborah Vance lived and almost relate to this mean, chic woman that you absolutely do not hear.
Deborah is wistful, but she doesn’t wish for a second that she could live a full life without comedy. Instead, she regrets not living a full comedy life without the distractions of family, friends, and marriages.
The way Deborah interprets the world around her – his ills, his tragedy, his happiness – is through comedy, a notoriously fickle art form. If Deborah’s life flashed before her eyes, it would consist of stand-up, her late night show, her missed opportunities, her residency in Vegas. The montage would not include her husband, her child, her sister’s betrayal, or her husband’s death. To Deborah, nothing really matters if it’s not about comedy.
hacking works this season because you slowly realize that this road trip is a total gamble for Deborah. There is no backup plan. Who she is, the way she needs the world to see her, her understanding of joy and pain—it’s all at stake. This comedy tour is a matter of its own survival.
But is all that too creepy, too narcissistic to admit?
It makes sense, then, that Deborah has surrounded herself with the likes of her devoted CEO Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) and Ava, her stubborn protégé. These two people—by choice or because they have no other options—are exactly like Deborah: completely consumed and determined by the job. Marcus uses Deborah’s reliance on him running her business as an anchor; it prevents him from turning away. Ava’s performance with Deborah is more of a lifesaver. Writing for Deb is all that happens in her life, as Ava is indecently good at taking advantage of opportunities.
Like attracts like, I guess. Ava and Marcus may not agree. They have just enough distance (for now) to see themselves in Deborah or not. They slowly creep to a point of no return, or if they’re lucky, a “stop before it’s too late” moment.
But hacking doesn’t quite fall into that mode. It’s more of a question of: Are Marcus and Ava built like Deborah or not? Could they have a life devoted only to work and happy? Wouldn’t it be nice to be in love with your work and know that you want to? That’s a subversive little fantasy in its own way.
The first two episodes of hacking are available to stream on HBO Max.