‘Hacks’ Is a Rare Comedy Series That’s Smart About Characters ‘Getting Canceled’

Welcome to my Hacks highlights reel, where I break down the standout moments and themes from the week’s pair of episodes! When I was first plotting these not-quite-recaps, I really thought I’d be focusing on one, maybe two or three scenes from each episode, but alas, the highlights of Hacks are many every week. So once again, I have written too many words! This time about  The Deborah Vance Christmas Spectacular” and “Yes And.”


A Christmas episode! I love when shows I love do a Christmas episode, because it means they get to go in my curated Christmas programming every year! I can’t wait to visit “The Deborah Vance Christmas Spectacular” this December and every December after that!!!!!

We open on Deborah enjoying the “snow,” or as we call it in Florida, “snoap” — snow made from soap. She pulls out a fan to cool down, as she is indeed enjoying the “snow” in Vegas. It’s a great visual gag. It also reveals that perhaps that climate crisis conversation didn’t sink in too deep. No doubt running those snow machines all day uses an absurd amount of power.

People indeed tend to fall back into bad habits and patterns when it comes to major holidays, often in the name of tradition, often in the name of trying to access past versions of themselves. Holidays make us revert. Soon after her snoap moment, Deborah also explains why Damien is still working for her on Christmas: He’s Jehovah’s Witness, and that’s why she hired him. “You need to get religion to work for you when you’re trying to get around labor laws,” she explains to Ava.

But the conflict of “The Deborah Vance Christmas Spectacular” doesn’t merely focus on Deborah being her worst self in terms of rich bitch shit and how she treats her staff. No, “The Deborah Vance Christmas Spectacular” brings out Deborah’s worst self in a much more personal and revelatory way. Because “The Deborah Vance Christmas Spectacular” sees the introduction of Kathy Vance for viewers and the reintroduction of Kathy Vance to Deborah’s life.

We got a brief glimpse of Kathy (played by Succession‘s J. Smith-Cameron) last week, and now we get to meet her for real. Deborah hasn’t spoken to Kathy in years because, well, Deborah’s dead ex-husband cheated on her with Kathy and then left her for her sister. And then she burned down his house! Messy, to say the least.

So now Deborah’s inviting Kathy to Christmas. What could possibly go wrong?

Christmas as Deborah’s is destined for dysfunction, especially since Ava’s bad vibes mom is invited, too. She’s got a new roommate Priya, who she can’t stop talking about (Jane Adams’s delivery of “no chutney”…AWARDS). At dinner, Deborah’s busy one-upping a timid Kathy, who is hardly the adversary one might expect of the great, gowned Deborah Vance. She’s timid and quiet. Deborah hates hearing someone remark how nice Kathy is. But she does seem nice! She’s clearly terrified of Deborah. She’s just a sweet little sister who doesn’t want to fuck up and find herself frozen out for another decade plus.

Dinner is indeed disastrous. Lauren Weedman is back as the show’s boozed-up mayor of Las Vegas. Deborah and Kathy’s passive aggression could carve the roast goose. Ava’s mom says Priya is “like the daughter she never had.” To her daughter. She says this to her daughter. I really do love the specific brand of bad mom Ava’s mom is. She’s not an easily categorized iteration of “bad mom.” Selfish, yes. Delusional. But really I do think her whole deal is best described with the nebulous label of “bad vibes.” That woman is bad vibes through and through! And now she’s obsessed with South Asian culture because of her roommate Priya, prompting Ava to accuse her of cultural appropriation and fetishizing. Ava just sort of lets her mom rant defensively in a way we don’t typically see her do when talking to someone like Deborah, who she is always pushing back on. I interpret this as Ava perhaps actually having some better boundaries with her mother, not letting herself get sucked into old patterns with her. It also, sadly, suggests Ava doesn’t respect her mother as much as she respects Deborah. She wants Deborah to be better, to change. She has sort of just accepted her mother has bad vibes — or perhaps at least that she can’t be the one to change her.

After dinner, Deborah blows up at Kathy when she mistakenly eats part of her gingerbread replica of the house. All the tension between them boils over and out into the fake snow-laden Vegas heat. Outside, Deborah and Kathy get into what I’m already ready to declare one of Television’s Great Fights, up there with Tom and Shiv’s balcony fight on Succession. There’s just so much meat to this fight, so much history. It doesn’t matter that we’ve never met Kathy up to this point; Deborah’s anger at her has been a steady throughline of the series, and both Jean Smart and Cameron-Smith immediately make this dynamic so lived-in and fleshed out. It’s the kind of fight where it’s easy to empathize with both characters, easy to be frustrated by both characters. What Kathy and Frank did to Deborah was beyond hurtful; it was truly a betrayal. But Deborah’s fiery vengeance through the years also reached the point of outsized long ago.

They devolve into a snoap fight, cut short when some of the chemicals from the fake snow get in Kathy’s eyes. The tension continues, but quieter now. They both agree their mother wouldn’t have wanted to be like this and to try this again in a more low-key, one-on-one situation rather than a high stakes setting like Christmas. Of course they weren’t able to heal anything over the holiday. People love to trick themselves into thinking a holiday provides the right distraction and motivation to work through family issues, but the opposite is usually true: The holidays just supersize those issues.

It’s impossible to choose VIP lines from episodes of this show, but gun to my head, I’m going with Kaitlin Olson’s delivery of “I just think it looks weird when a baby doesn’t have pierced ears.”

Kayla and Jimmy spend the episode and their Christmas holiday on a romp with an eccentric old man trying to convince him to let them make a biopic about his late grandfather, because Jack Danby has dramatic acting ambitions specifically to play this man, information Kayla gets out of her father, who represents Jack. It’s a fun, zany subplot that drives home just how perfect Megan Stalter and Paul Downs are together as a weirdo comedy duo. Deidre Hall as Jimmy’s mom is a revelation!

Also, Deborah’s back in the mix for late night!


Moving along to “Yes And,” which is perhaps my favorite episode of Hacks season three, but also that’s a hard superlative to award! This whole season is upsettingly good!

“Yes And” kicks off with a hot Deborah Vance photoshoot and a not-so-hot scheduling snafu. Kayla messed up the calendars, and now Deborah is supposed to go to Berkeley to receive an honorary degree and be interviewed by journalist Meena Elahi, who as Ava says has “taken so many people down.” Marcus and Damien promptly freak out, because Deborah’s supposed to be in Palm Springs for Pride and to promote her House of Vance line at a house party for her many gay fans. She says she’ll try to do both, but that doesn’t end up happening, because Deborah has to do damage control at Berkeley when she finds herself cancelled.

But let’s come back to that. It’s a great episode of Marcus, too, who ends up abandoned at the House of Vance activation. The people I know in my life who are like Marcus (and I have a lot of Marcuses in my life!) do exactly what he does when something doesn’t go their way: spiral the fuck out. The most control freaky people in my life are also often the most reckless when they choose to be. We’ve seen Marcus respond to frustrations in his work and personal life before by overindulging, and that’s what happens here. He turns the Deborah Vance activation into an all-out homo party fuckfest, and he even breaks his rule about not hooking up with Deborah fans (which backfires horribly). I’ve wanted more Marcus from this season, but I’ve liked what we got, especially as we start to see Marcus drift away from Deborah. We’ve already seen someone wants to poach him at QVC. And in this episode, he snaps at Deborah.

Marcus ends up finding some healing at the gay club — BEEN THERE! — when a fan points out that it shouldn’t be a bad thing that Deborah has been embraced by a more mainstream audience. Her gays were there from the beginning, cementing her gay icon status long before she had status of any kind. Marcus is a fascinating character in his evolution with Deborah. He went from one of those gay fans to working for her to basically running her entire business arm. He’s frustrated with his boss, but he’s also frustrated like a fan, feeling possessive of Deborah and not wanting to share her. But that possessiveness is of course complicated by his work. It’s complicated! And Hacks excels in these kinds of character-drive stories where people’s motives are fraught or contradictory.

It’s interesting to watch this Deborah superfan conversation against the backdrop of what Deborah’s actually dealing with in the episode: her swift cancellation. A supercut of all her most problematic jokes from early in her career starts circulating on social media, and when Ava catches wind of it, she pulls Deborah into a lecture hall to discuss. It’s a great scene between them, funny but also real. Ava remains calm as she tries to explain that actually, yeah, this is quite bad, and these are jokes she’d never do now. Maybe she should just apologize for them. But Deborah becomes her most myopic self, laments the timing of this coinciding with her about to get her dream job, doesn’t want to be held accountable for the past. Again, like I wrote about last weekHacks remains realistic and doesn’t romanticize or gloss over Deborah’s reaction here. She reacts very much like an older white comedian, wanting to believe that prior work happened in a vacuum, is merely a product of its time, and does not warrant an apology.

Her plan to smooth it over? Do an improv show with students and attend a frat party.

This does not work out for her, but it is very fun to watch! Improv jokes are pretty low-hanging fruit, but leave it to Hacks to actually make this whole sequence funny as hell and totally in its own distinct comedic voice. And then we get more comedic revelry at the frat party, where Deborah thinks she can buy her way into the good graces of the students. And sure, they’re loving it! But these shitty frat boys aren’t really the people she needs to win over. They’re squarely in the rare demographics she didn’t actually offend with that early work.

Side Note: I love the recurring bit of the frat boy who has a massive crush on Deborah. Frat boys, they’re just like us! (Have mommy issues.) I also love the recurring bit of Ava having a very 27-years-old-coded spiral on campus of realizing she’s “old” to these students.

Deborah gets a call from Jimmy during the party that the network has canceled her test shoot. He’s unsure why but thinks it could be because of the supercut. Deborah and Ava dip into a bedroom to discuss, and much like the lecture hall scene, there’s a stark contrast between their energies. Deborah is freaking out and screaming, and Ava is remarkably calm, trying to talk her down in a straightforward way. Only, it’s all heightened even more now because they’ve been drinking.

“This is insane,” Deborah shouts. “Me! I’m being taken down by a liberal mod. Me! Who was the first person to be fined by the FCC for saying the word abortion on TV! Why come after me?!”

“This is not a value judgment on your entire being,” Ava says. “They’re just upset about some mistakes you made.”

Ava urges her to use her comedic brain to think through her defensiveness and actually be smart and human about this. Deborah’s spiral is simultaneously hysteric white nonsense but also…rooted in real and even understandable emotions! I don’t think she should be absolved for anything she said or did, but I do think her exhaustions and frustrations make sense. This kind of discomfort is actually necessary for people to actually make changes to themselves. Ava’s right: She should be working through that discomfort rather than resisting it and making it worse.

Deborah’s fan reminiscing on how it felt like she was on top of the world to him even when she was at rock bottom doesn’t negate anything happening to her over at Berkeley, but it does deepen the story. Like Ava says: Two things can be true. Deborah pushed boundaries as a woman comic in a male dominated space. She also got rich and famous from jokes made at other people’s expense, jokes that punched down. Deborah meant so much to a specific group of gay cis men in the past. She also was doing material at that same time that is now coming back to bite her in the ass. Her career isn’t a monolith. Deborah Vance has represented many different things to different people.

Deborah finally rewatches some of the old material and is rightfully embarrassed. She agrees to attend a town hall with concerned students who wish to air their grievances. For once, she shuts up and listens, but also admits it’s largely because she’s afraid of saying the wrong thing. As ever, even in her contrition, Hacks is realistic about exactly the kind of white woman Deborah is.

A Punjabi student stands up to speak first and basically delivers a tight set detailing how Deborah’s material amplified and played into racist and Islamophobic tropes after 9/11. Another student talks to Deborah about her ableist material. Deborah indeed just listens. And I love that the students get to be funny while they’re calling her out. They get to do funny material about their identities because they’re indeed their identities.

Often when television tries to dabble in cancellation storylines, it’s a misfire (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt immediately comes to mind.) Much like the concept of cancellation itself, storylines about it can often be devoid of nuance. Here, we get smart, sharp storytelling with layers. Hacks isn’t derisive or mocking toward the students critiquing Deborah. Their concerns are treated as valid, and Ava makes it clear that Deborah fucked up but can still do the right thing.

The series began with a well executed cancellation storyline, too. Ava ended up losing her job for a tweet — or, at least, that’s how she sees it and that’s how it appears on the surface. Really though, it wasn’t just one tweet. Ava already had a sticky reputation in her industry, no filter, and the one tweet led to people digging up others from when she was 20. Ava liked to believe she’d been “canceled” by an angry mob over one tweet, but it was more complicated than that. It’s interesting to consider her reaction to and guidance for Deborah’s “cancellation” in this episode given that history.

And even in the end, when Deborah gets exactly what she wants (late night!), it doesn’t feel like Hacks is slapping any kind of bandaid onto the mistakes she has made leading up to this. It speaks to the good storytelling of this show that you do want to see Deborah win even when you also want to see her taken to task.

I’ll leave you with this image of Deborah Vance doing a keg stand:

Deborah Vance doing a keg stand

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 861 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. There’s no way Damien could be a Jehovah’s Witness. I just hate that they got it so wrong, they could have written any other excuse why he works for Deb on Christmas:
    #1. He is gay – that’s a major no no in the JW group.
    #2. A true JW would not be working for a Christmas event. He would not be allowed to plan or direct this.
    #3. This is season 3 where Ava has been in the mix for 2 years now. She would have known within her first few days of knowing Damien that he is JW – their whole shtick is to “preach the good news”.
    #4. He would have been forbidden to deal or involve himself with DJ’s birthday in the last season, JWs do not celebrate birthdays let alone coordinate one.
    #5. A true JW must attend “meetings” 2x a week plus a bible study at someone’s house, plus spend many hours in “field service” preaching the good news and handing out religious pamphlets. He would not have any time to be Deborah’s personal assistant nor would he be allowed to take a road tour trip that would take him out of the Kingdom Hall (church) for such an extended period.
    #6. Being a JW is a second job, there’s just no way he could be successful at both.

  2. I do wish some of the POC in Deborah’s orbit could have had some input in the cancellation storyline. I would have been interested to seen what Damian or Kiki had to say about that supercut.

    But otherwise I agree, I think the show handled the storyline really well, especially because it really showcases the growth of both Ava and Deborah since s1. No way would Ava have been able to be that calm and rational two years ago, nor would Deborah have been embarrassed by her old material. They are in each others’ heads and make each other better.

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