Out-of-touch hermit watches “Hacks” in 2023: An ep.1 review

Yes, it’s me, jogging slowly with a Dixie cup of water at the back of the TV marathon. It’s 2023 and I just watched the first episode of “Hacks” (2021), wildly successful marathon dramedy from HBO, HBO being a channel I’ve mostly stopped watching since their main exports became full frontal nudity and sadness. (Plus, the app is ancient and it makes my TV crash.) But despite these Herculean obstacles, I finally got around to watching “Hacks,” and I’m here to report that I…liked it?

“Hacks” is a middle finger to the relegation of female comedians to jokes about how “men suck” and/or “sex sucks” and/or “sex with men sucks,” with Hannah Einbeinder’s Ava Daniels on one side of the culture war, and Jean Smart’s Deborah Vance on the other. 

The future of female comedy is self-made Twitter comedian Ava, introduced by musing whether her current unemployment is karmic punishment for getting fingered at a wake. The past lives on in floundering comedian Deborah Vance, whose character is a gesture of pity for the lost talent of our mothers’ generation, the Joan Rivers of the world who traded comedy for complaining and opened their shows with “ ladies, can we talk?”

“Hacks” opens on Deborah cruising through yet another Vegas show, joking half-heartedly about how sex with men is so bad she might just become a lesbian. It’s the kind of joke from an era where heterosexual sex was seen as an obligation, something Midge Maisel might say. But Deborah just can’t hack it in 2021; a few minutes into Hacks’ pilot, she’s melting down in a Vegas hotel with the owner who has just informed her that her act is being cut for Pentatonix. 

It seems that in Vegas showbiz, there are “two buckets to fill — families and idiots in their twenties. The families want to see singing and dancing. And the college kids wanna spend a grand to watch a guy in a helmet hit play on an iPod.” 

Speaking of idiots in their twenties, Ava is lingering at her agent’s office, jobless and aimless. In between vaping and having sex with her Postmates delivery guy, she’s begging old acquaintances for work. While neither are aware, Ava and Deborah share their agent, and he offers Ava a job as Deborah’s writer in order to keep his big star’s career afloat. Deborah is, of course, blindsided when Ava shows up at her doorstep. 

“I’m going to stop you right there,” Deborah snaps at Ava, “I don’t work with writers.” 

Both irritated, their conversation descends into a Shakespearean battle of words, the best roast of which includes Ava’s accusation that Deborah’s lavish mansion is an abandoned Cheesecake Factory. But instead of being offended, Deborah is impressed, and chases Ava to the end of her driveway to hire her: “Write me twenty jokes by tomorrow morning,” she demands. “Nothing about pantyhose or the Challenger explosion – I’ve done ‘em all.”

It’s a trope as old as TV: the apprentice offends the master, and the master takes it as a sign of the apprentice’s true potential. But after spending 30 minutes with Ava and Deborah, it’s oh so satisfying to see that the cosmic collision of these two off-putting and antisocial people has resulted not in an explosion, but in an intriguing, creative spark.