The First Season of “Hacks” Was a Masterclass in Unlikable Characters — I’m READY for Season 2!

I missed Hacks the first time around for no particular reason. For years, I’ve been invested in the writing careers of Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky. They’re verifiable weirdos behind some of the best comedy episodes to air in recent years (all three were writers on Broad City, and Statsky wrote on The Good Place). I don’t have a real excuse for skipping out on watching the first season of their HBO Max half-hour series starring Jean Smart (!!!) and Hannah Einbinder as it was airing. I just missed it.

When I finally sat down to watch it, I did so in one sitting. And I was furious with myself. This show checks so many of my boxes (chaotic bisexual main as a protagonist CHECK; a very mean and hot older woman as a protagonist CHECK; a nebulous relationship full of fraught power dynamics between the chaotic bisexual and the mean hot older woman CHECK!!!!!!!!!!) that it is, frankly, absurd it took me so long to inhale it.

Hacks follows two comedians on an unintentional collision course with each other. There’s Deborah Vance (Smart), a legend who’s gradually losing her relevancy in the comedy world and whose longtime Vegas residency is therefore at risk. Then there’s Ava (Einbinder), a floundering young comedy writer who had brief success in writing rooms before getting “canceled” for a tweet about a conservative senator. Their shared manager (played by Downs) throws them together hoping to kill two birds with one stone and at least keep them both appeased enough to stop bothering him. He inadvertently creates a dynamic, dysfunctional, messy, hot, toxic comedy duo for the ages.

Deborah and Ava need each other. But when they first meet, it’s hatred-at-first-sight. Ava arrives in Vegas thinking she’s better, funnier, and morally superior to Deborah, whose lavish life in the middle of a draught-plagued desert is so wildly out of touch that it hurts to look at. Deborah takes one look at Ava and writes her off for her dirty boots and inexperience.

These women think they have nothing in common, and on the surface, they don’t. But what makes them so volatile together is not their differences but the ways they’re alike. They need each other, but neither would ever admit to needing anyone. They’re self-obsessed, self-righteous assholes.

My favorite relationship dynamics to watch play out in film and television usually have one thing in common: They’re difficult to define. Deborah and Ava fall squarely in that realm, their dynamic altogether strange, combative, and even a little sexy. Yes, I’m well on record as appreciating a good age gap dynamic, and even though Deborah and Ava’s relationship is not technically romantic…it’s also not NOT romantic?

Both women have love interests who are absolutely not each other. Deborah has a very fun on-and-off dalliance with a man who is also her enemy (hot!). He’s the one threatening to take away her Vegas residency, and the two get a thrill out of manipulating and outmaneuvering each other, unafraid to play dirty. Ava, meanwhile, has a couple quick hookups with random men, including one that takes a tragic turn that is, ultimately, easy to see coming if you don’t have your head so far up your own ass the way Ava does. At the periphery, Ava’s also mourning a breakup with her ex-girlfriend, who periodically pops up, especially because Ava is not so great at breakup boundaries.

But Ava’s most meaningful relationship over the course of the first season is with Deborah. Their arc together follows a version of the Enemies To Lovers trope — even if they never become literal lovers. Upon their first meeting, they’re immediately at odds with each other. But by the end of the pilot, there’s a brief glimpse at the chemistry beneath the surface. It hinges on their work. When Ava and Deborah are in a writing groove, there’s a spark. Deborah punches up Ava’s joke at the end of the episode, and she does it to show off, to make a power play against Ava, who she sees as young and entitled. But she’s also having fun. And Ava, despite immediately hating this rich old woman, is ever-so-charmed.

The creative collaboration between Ava and Deborah is as intimate as a romantic relationship. That first moment of working on something together in the pilot is just the beginning. In episode eight, “1.69 Million,” Deborah moves Ava into her house so they can work on a brand new hour-long special just two weeks before showtime. The ensuing montage of the two of them working on the new material — both a little delirious and giddy — is a highlight of the first season. It might as well belong in a romantic-comedy. We might as well be watching them seduce each other. Deborah and Ava are, sometimes, like oil and water. Other times, they swirl into something alchemic and magical. The strange and unexpected nature of their chemistry makes it, frankly, erotic!

And that’s not just me and my mommy issues reaching. Even Ava ends up confused at points in the season. The seventh episode, “Tunnel of Love,” opens with Ava in bed with a guy. Right away, we know she’s dreaming. The guy shifts into Deborah. They kiss, and Ava startles out of the fantasy. Later, when she sees Deborah, she’s still swirling with confusing, excited feelings. She seems to be thinking that she really could have a crush on Deborah. It’s funny, but it’s not played just for laughs. The confusion is real. The blurred boundaries of their relationship are fully felt in the writing.

Ava, hilariously, wonders if it’s just because she watched Carol the previous night. The joke shouldn’t work as well as it does, but Poppy Liu as Kiki (Deborah’s longtime private blackjack dealer) fucking nails the delivery of her response.

Ava says "Or is it just cause I watched Carol last night?" to Kiki on Hacks

Kiki says "oh you watched Carol last night?" to Ava on Hacks

Kiki says "well then it's definitely just about Carol, duh" to Ava on Hacks

Then Hacks takes things to a more serious (but still funny in its execution) place. Ava consoles Deborah’s daughter DJ (a fantastic performance from Kaitlin Olson) after a blowup argument between her and Deborah. But Ava being Ava, she finds a way to make this little healing sesh about herself. She realizes she isn’t literally into Deborah but that this is the most intimate relationship she has ever had with someone who she wasn’t sleeping with. “I just have a fucked up sense of intimacy,” she says, satisfied with having figured it out but, of course, not really confronting the reality of what that means.

Because Ava loves to point the finger anywhere else but at herself when it comes to her problems. And yet also manages to engage in self-pity, too. It’s impressive, really, just how flawed and unlikable these two leads are. Hacks doesn’t pull any punches there. Deborah’s a bad mom. And in fact, to call Deborah a bad mom is like calling a category 5 hurricane a rainstorm. Ava thinks her career is stalled because of her bad joke (in Ava’s mind, she thinks people just thought it was offensive, but really it just wasn’t that good of a joke!), but fellow writers don’t like her for a whole slew of other reasons, namely the fact that she’s transparently transactional. She and Deborah are both hustlers, and that’s not entirely demonized by Hacks. Ava learns a lot about Deborah’s past and the ways she had to fight for a place in a male dominated industry and, in a few cases, lost that fight. Deborah and Ava’s more redeeming qualities aren’t separate or counterintuitive to their flaws. Those parts of themselves are all connected. These are messy, messy characters who frustrate and entertain in equal measure. They’re made for each other, really.

Deborah and Ava are all acerbic tang, but there are pockets of sweetness in Hacks, especially seen through the side characters, who are fully fleshed out and have stories and stakes outside of their relationships to Deborah and Ava. There’s a little gay romance subplot between Deborah’s assistant Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) and the city worker (Johnny Sibilly) who keeps writing up Deborah for water violations. Kaitlin Olson really does take what could easily feel like just a bit character and makes her into someone who you care about, who breaks your heart a little. The world of Hacks is textured and weird, a lot like Vegas itself. And like Vegas, it’s also got a lot going on beneath the glitzy surface. It’s not just a showbiz comedy — though it does excel on that front, providing commentary on the industry that feels alive and fresh and unromanticized without being full-on nihilistic.

Hacks takes two very unlikable characters, mixes them together, and transmutes them into something truly irresistible. It’s a staggering feat of chemistry. The fact that literal icon Jean Smart being in this is not THE selling point but just one of many, many jewels in the show’s crown is wild. Einbinder more than holds her own as a scene partner. Season one thrives on Deborah and Ava’s push and pull. Creative collaboration as intimate and intense as theirs is simply hot! I was late to the party, but I’m here to stay. I can’t wait to see what season two has in store for these partners.


Hacks season two premieres Thursday May 12 on HBO Max.


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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 Miami. 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 394 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. Ooooh I hope you’re going to do recaps!!!! I so so loved this show I didn’t think Ava would grow on me but alas Hanna made she sure did. But Jean Smart (of course!) is sublime no matter how insufferable. Their chemistry wipes the floor with any kind of other magic show Vegas could lamely offer.

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