Here’s why critics are loving Hacks, a HBO Max comedy series starring Jean Smart and newcomer Hannah Einbinder. Overall, reviews acknowledge the strong female leads who excel at communicating their characters’ skepticism and vulnerability. Some critics acknowledge potential long-term weak spots but find value in the meta-humor about joke writing, and how it applies to early 2020s culture. HBO Max released the first two episodes of Hacks on May 13, 2021.
In Hacks, Smart portrays an iconic Las Vegas comedian named Deborah Vance. She lives a glamorous celebrity lifestyle, but then learns from her agent that she may lose her weekend performance slots, with the implication being that she’s no longer a viable Sin City headliner. Hoping to rebrand herself for a millennial audience, Vance hires a disgraced comedy writer named Ava (Einbinder) who needs work because of a cancel culture scandal. Together, the two women work through personal conflict for the sake of steady income and original comedy.
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Hacks currently has a 100 percent Tomatometer score at Rotten Tomatoes, with the audience score being slightly lower at 89 percent. Most reviews praise Smart’s performance as an aging comedian who doesn’t fully understand millennial culture yet still shows a willingness to adapt her Vegas routine. As Deborah Vance, Smart conveys the arrogance of a privileged celebrity, and shows an endearing side while delivering brutally honest advice to her protege-in-the-making, Ava. Since Einbinder only has a couple industry credits to her name, audiences may be surprised by her on-screen charisma and strong comedic chemistry with Smart. For what it’s worth, Einbinder is in fact the daughter of an original Saturday Night Live cast member, Laraine Newman. Here are some glowing takes on the HBO Max show Hacks.
“Watching and enjoying it is enough, but Smart and Einbinder make us want to sit with these two, Smart especially, as Deborah and Ava enrich each other’s existence.”
“[Einbinder] has only a few small acting credits… But she’s confident and at ease and does a remarkable job of embodying a seemingly awful person who doesn’t think she’s awful and who, not all that deep down, isn’t that awful at all.”
“This is a big, brilliant, wholly original performance, with Smart constantly shifting emotional gears and deftly stealing every scene she’s in while somehow also managing to make room for the other actors in the room to have their moments.”
“Every time Smart is onscreen, she makes you curious to hear what’s going to come out of her mouth but even more curious to hear how she’s going to say it.”
Overall, critics have mostly praised HBO Max’s Hacks, and haven’t really pointed out any major flaws. Because of the stand-up comedy premise, though, viewers may indeed expect the series to be laugh-out-loud funny at all times. As some reviews have noted, Hacks isn’t necessarily about people who are exceptionally funny in every situation (a la Seinfeld), but rather about two women from different generations who learn more about themselves and each other through their creative process. So, audiences should indeed expect bad jokes, as the HBO Max series shows how the leads develop comedy over time, and how they tweak their material based on audience reactions. What’s especially intriguing about Hacks is that Deborah and Ava are constantly performing for each other, which results in raw feedback and accelerating growth as performers. Here are some additional takes on the show:
“The HBO Max comedy is first and foremost a vehicle for [Jean Smart], one that starts off shakily but gets sturdier with each new half-hour.”
“Would it help if the jokes the two work on were stronger? Sure, but Hacks also talks a lot about how hard good joke-writing is. It gets everything else right, so it deserves the extra time to figure that last part out.”
“While ‘Hacks’ may be a harsh title for something this deliciously good, it captures the price some are willing to pay for celebrity. Brands may change but desire doesn’t.”
“Away from the stage, the writing feels far more surefooted, juggling how people can be capable of both kindness and incredible spite.”
HBO Max didn’t release the entirety of Hacks season 1 in May 2021, so it’s plausible that the quality could diminish as the season progresses. However, most critics were able to screen six full episodes before the series premiere, so it seems like the show is destined for a second season. Hacks doesn’t limit the storyline to Las Vegas, but rather extends to Hollywood, which allows for an expanded commentary about the industry.
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