Helen Hunt as a Bisexual Pickleball Monster on ‘Hacks’…Yes, Please

Welcome back to your weekly Autostraddle Hacks season three coverage, where I’ll delve into the highlights from the week’s episodes. Today, we’re discussing our favorite parts of episodes three and four: “The Roast of Deborah Vance” and “Join the Club.”


Ava has officially decided to spend her hiatus preparing Deborah for the possibility of taking over a soon-to-be-vacant late night slot, and at every turn, she keeps being reminded she’s an employee not a friend, despite wanting to believe she’s the latter.

“The Roast of Deborah Vance” opens with Deborah barging into her room unannounced to ask her to help her with a punchline. Soon after, Ava is tasked with firing her replacement writers played by Jordan Gavaris and Dylan Gelula (two fantastic actors btw, who don’t get enough screentime, but I also think it speaks to the strength of Hacks casting from top to bottom that the even the smallest bit roles stand out — there isn’t a single character who feels extraneous here). Later, Deborah spits a lozenge straight into Ava’s hand before taking the stage. The message is clear: She’s whatever Deborah needs her to be. A writer, a punching bag, a notebook, a loose napkin to drop a lozenge in.

Ava returned to Deborah’s fold for distinctly emotional reasons. Sure, there are career reasons, too. But in the lead up to Ava coming back, moments that feel most significant include her literally telling Deborah her feelings were hurt by her not answering her texts. There is extremely high emotional investment here, and it tracks that Ava hasn’t fully processed yet just how much Deborah is treating her like an employee — because she is one! She is an employee. Their interpersonal relationship is forever a little doomed by this. Lucky for them, I love a doomed dynamic.

Speaking of top to bottom impeccable casting, we have the triumphant return of Poppy Liu as Kiki! Ava waltzes into a school locker room full of beautiful breasts to find Kiki and other gorgeous women getting glammed up. But this is no Vegas showgirls showcase; it’s a PTA fundraiser for Kiki’s daughter’s school, aimed at the rich men who re/married late in life and have young kids and deep pockets. Now, I only lived in Vegas for about seven months, but this does feel very Vegas! Liu remains outstanding in her line readings. Kiki says to another hot mom in one breath: “Denise! Waist very snatched, ass very fat. Also, I loved Stephanie’s diorama on the Hoover Dam. I learned so much.”

Kiki becomes crucial to helping Ava realize how messed up it is that Deborah blurs lines between the personal and the professional. Yes, it’s a lesson Ava has learned before — multiple times. But it still hasn’t sunk all the way in, and what I love about Hacks is that it doesn’t show its characters making the same mistakes over and over again just as a comedy plot device to lazily construct recurring conflict. It isn’t, dare I say, hack about its approach to problems and obstacles that repeat themselves. Rather, Ava and Deborah’s default to old behaviors is deeply rooted in authentic character development and emotional stakes. Ava is, whether she likes it or not, desperate to please Deborah. (Don’t worry — more explicit mommy issues storylines are coming down the pipeline of season three.) So when Deborah calls from an NA meeting she has been roped into attending by her daughter DJ (the always great Kaitlin Olson, in what might be my favorite role of her career) asking Ava to quickly write her a speech to give in honor of DJ receiving her five-year chip, Ava doesn’t even flinch. Writing a mother’s supportive sobriety speech for a daughter isn’t exactly a part of her job description, but Deborah would argue it is, because Deborah treats all of her staff as being on-call 24/7. Kiki warns her against working on too much personal stuff for Deborah.

Ava blowing a makeup brush on Kiki's ass in Hacks

Deborah also sees it’s Ava’s job to write the NA speech for her, because she genuinely can’t tell the difference between a task like this and writing material for a set. There’s an audience. And when she realizes she has them in the palm of her hand, she smiles, keeps talking. She turns it into a light roast of DJ, completely missing the point of why she’s here. Deborah’s intimacy issues are the size of a Vegas hotel and just as labyrinth. She has to shroud everything in a joke. And the NA meeting performance is one of the worst instances of this yet, made all the worse by the fact that this is how Deborah learns DJ is pregnant. By then, it’s too late for Deborah to patch things over with DJ. The moment — one that should have been joyous — is ruined. Deborah, at least, is smart enough to know this.

When DJ later tells Ava about her pregnancy, it’s a complete contrast. Here is the joyful moment she should have been able to have with her mother. Ava is thrilled (“I’m gonna be an uncle!”), and then later when Ava casually drops to Deborah she knows about DJ’s pregnancy, there’s a bit of unspoken tension. Deborah seems a bit surprised DJ told Ava. But she can’t over-involve Ava in her personal life and then be surprised when she develops her own relationship with her daughter. I’m not convinced Deborah and Ava actually know what they want or need from each other, but isn’t that the way so many relationships go?

The reason Deborah agrees to attend the NA meeting in the first place is self-serving: It’s in exchange for DJ participating in the titular roast. The network, who Deborah is eager to please since she’s gunning for the late night gig, wants there to be a family member included in the roast. They offer her sister Kathy as an option, but that’s never going to happen, so DJ it is.

I keep waiting for people to bomb in this season of Hacks. But so far season three seems more interested in doing something else, in showing people kill it on stage/screen but also not making that the be all end all of success. In the premiere, Deborah kills in front of a massive crowd, but she feels creatively unsatisfied. In the second episode, she kills the late night guest hosting gig, but the victory also highlights just how unfair it was that she has never had the hosting gig she’s dreamed of.

Of course I thought DJ was going to bomb at the roast. The episodes primes us to believe she will. But she not only crushes her set; she even impossibly gets the catchphrase “WHAT A CUNT” to land. It’s thrilling! Even Deborah seems pleased! We get to be happy for DJ for slaying, but then the triumph is slightly dampened by the fact that this has only reiterated her problems with her mother. She says she finally understands why standup comedy is the number one thing in Deborah’s life, which of course is not what a mother wants to hear from their daughter. This season of Hacks is letting its characters creatively thrive while also showing that doesn’t necessarily mean everything is hunk dory. And in certain storylines, a lot has to be sacrificed or compromised for characters to get what they want.

DJ slaying at the roast on Hacks

The episode ends with Ava setting new boundaries with Deborah, including that Deborah no longer insult her, not even for her hands, whose size Deborah has a fondness for mocking. Deborah finds a workaround by texting insults to Josefina to read out loud to Ava, which even Ava has to admit is funny. Even at their worst, these two can usually connect over a good bit. Bits, though, are ephemeral. Soon enough, they’ll be at each other’s throats.

Which brings us to episode four, “Join the Club,” in which Deborah learns the true cost of being admitted to the old boy comedy club.

But first: a hilarious interlude between Hannah Einbinder and Paul Downs in which Jimmy details various open writing assignments Ava might be a good fit for. Every studio wants a procedural adaptation of the game Operation. Market research shows Gen Z thinks the spoon from Beauty and the Beast is hot, so what about a spinoff about his love life? Someone’s making a bisexual version of Gumby (“he bends both ways”) under the working title: Gum-bi. We’re getting 30 Rock-style jokes about the absurdity of Hollywood but in the significantly more grounded world of Hacks, and it works!

Early on in “Join the Club,” Deborah runs into an old pal and comedian Henry (prolific character actor Stephen Tobolowsky!), who waxes poetic on the brilliance of her special and then invites her on a colonoscopy retreat (they literally rent a house and play cards all night while prepping for colonoscopies) with him and fellow comedy old timers Terry and Cliff. Deborah later explains to Ava that when she was coming up in standup, these were the guys. She feels she was never seen as legit by them in the past. Deborah puts up a bad bitch act, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen her insecurities about coming up as a woman in a man’s world.

Meanwhile, Jimmy and Kayla are trying to get a general meeting with Helen Hunt’s Winnie Landell, the new network exec introduced at the beginning of the season. Kayla gets them a meeting…on a pickleball court. Winnie is extremely competitive on the court and plays for money, and Kayla and Jimmy end up down ten grand, offering a double or nothing hail mary because they need to win Winnie over if they’re going to make Deborah a viable contender for the late night slot, especially now that she’s up against young gun Jack Danby. Winnie Landell is, again, evidence that Hacks makes even its smallest characters hilarious and specific. Hacks never just coasts by on the chemistry and skills of Einbinder and Smart. Everyone is giving 110%, and that’s certainly true for Hunt, who is delicious as a pickleball-playing monster. Beth, her pickleball partner, is hilariously revealed to be her ex-wife. We’ve got an evil queer executive in the house!

Helen Hunt as Winnie Landell in Hacks

In other minor character news, Hacks writer Joe Mande also returns as Ray, the surly Palmetto frontdesk worker who hates Ava’s guts. Ava joins Marcus and his trivia team (his mom and his ex-boyfriend started the team without him but invited him once they realized they needed someone who knows state capitals). Mande as Ray gets some great lines in. Characters like Winnie and Ray make Hacks feel like such a lived-in world.

But the trivia scenes do more than just add some texture to the world of Hacks. We also get the latest plot development between Ava and Ruby. Ava has been slightly monitoring the ongoings at Ruby’s place via their shared Ring light app, and it comes to a head when Ruby catches her doing so during her going away party. Ava steps out of trivia to talk to Ruby, who gives her an ultimatum: Be with her, come with her to Iceland, or don’t bother coming back. Ava wants to see this thing through with Deborah. She wants to choose Deborah.

Over at the colonoscopy slumber party, Deborah is shooting the shit with the guys, playing Uno and drinking disgusting magnesium cocktails. But the camaraderie shifts into something else when one of the guys starts making fun of his 15-year-old niece for being bisexual. The guys all riff back and forth, making fun of bisexuals and pansexuals and, when Deborah interrupts to say there are some people who indeed are attracted to all genders, they think she’s doing a bit, piling on by making fun of the idea of more than two genders.

“You know for comedians, you’re all a little out of touch,” Deborah says before excusing herself.

In the bathroom, she overhears them talking more shit, calling her the PC police and a buzzkill, so she leaves the house and takes all the toilet paper with her, old dudes preparing for their colonoscopies be damned.

A lot of the jokes the guys are cracking are similar to the jokes Deborah has cracked before, often to Ava’s face. But it’s different now. It’s different here. They’re making these out-of-touch punching down jokes in the privacy of this luxury Airbnb. It’s clear they really believe this stuff. And it’s different now because Ava has changed Deborah. She may not have overhauled Deborah’s beliefs and sense of humor entirely, but she has gotten in her head. Even if it’s just in this one small way of making her believe bisexuality as real. It’s enough to make Deborah uncomfortable with the guys. It’s enough to make her leave.

And then Ava and Deborah fight about, well, essentially about feeling too controlled by one another. Ava basically chose to let a relationship end because of Deborah. Deborah rejected her invitation to the old boys club because they were being shitty to bi people, to people like Ava.

“I finally get in good with those guys, and I can’t enjoy it because of you!” Deborah yells. “You got in my head. They said some crap about bisexuals, and I couldn’t let it go.”

Deborah claims she was perfectly content to be a Vegas star until Ava showed up and pushed her to want more for herself. She’s lying through her teeth. Deborah always wanted more for herself. She wanted late night. She wanted to be taken seriously, even though she’s often chasing the approval of people who don’t deserve her, like these men who didn’t invite her to their poop party until she had a hit special.

Ava and Deborah yelling at each other over a kitchen island in Hacks

Ava unloads about the breakup, tells Deborah she lost everything to come back here: Ruby, their mutual friends, their mutual facialist. Deborah tells her she didn’t have to come back. “Yes I did, because I wanted to. I wanted to be here with you, because you’re in my head,” Ava shouts.

They’re in each other’s heads. They both feel changed by each other, and they hate it.

It’s a great fight, but it also lands in a quieter place. This show really is remarkable in its balance of cruelty and care, a true sweet and sour mix. Deborah finally explains in more vulnerable detail to Ava what getting late night means to her. She has always wanted it. Long before her career began, she watched as a kid in a house with few rules. “My dad was a drinker. The later it got, the worse it got,” she explains. “Except when Johnny Carson came on.”

Ava wants Deborah to share these more personal stories with the public. If she really wants late night, she has to say it. But Deborah doesn’t want to say she wants it, let alone why she wants it so badly. She’s afraid of becoming a joke again, of saying she wants it and then not getting it. This whole exchange doesn’t negate or soften any of the fight that precedes it; rather, it just further contextualizes the frustrations that led to the fight in the first place. Deborah and Ava both feel burdened by their wants. Deborah is mortified by the thought of coming out and saying she wants late night. Ava wants to be here with Deborah despite it fucking up her life again, and even she doesn’t seem to know why this want is so all-encompassing.

But Deborah listens to Ava in the end, at least about saying she wants it, even if she doesn’t get as vulnerable as saying why. While hosting the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, she announces she’s ready to be the next host of The Late Show. She pitches herself as the best person for the job, and from there, it’s a full court press on the press. She’s making media appearances she never would have agreed to before like Taxi TV and an airport hologram, doing QVC tie-ins, and doing a Dunkin Donuts collab. It works. Jimmy gets a call from Winnie: Deborah is at least in the mix.

Together, these episodes work to show how Deborah and Ava are good together and how they are not, and it’s often for the same reasons. They’re different; they push each other. They both struggle with genuine emotion and intimacy and often use humor as a shield. Their individually ambitious but also creatively sutured together. They struggle to articulate and rationalize their wants. I keep waiting for characters in Hacks to fuck up on stage, on screen, or in their art this season, but that’s not what this season seems to be about so far. It’s about killing it professionally but still struggling — in interpersonal relationships but also with career goals that still feel out of reach. It’s about feeling stymied by the industry (see: Gum-bi and the agism that keeps Deborah from being in the late night mix initially) even when you are indeed getting some wins.

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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 844 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. I adore this season so much, for all the reasons you describe here, Kayla. The specificity of the characters and the jokes, yes, and also how skillfully the tone and cadence of the show can shift and surprise us––revealing the depth of these characters (especially Deborah and Ava) in spite of themselves.

    • it’s SO GOOD. and often, tv shows about the film/tv industry can get a little myopic and, well, hack. but this series is really proving there’s a way to do it with nuance, originality, and realism

  2. So I love this show, and I loved Loved loved the season 2 finale’s “To love someone is to let them go” scene. I cried. However, Deborah did seem to be taking Ava’s autonomy and choices away from her, despite Ava explicitly saying “I want to be where you are, I want to be with you.”

    And now, after Deborah couldn’t keep up with the one “good” thing she’s done (Let Ava go) and asked her back, both Deborah and Ruby, btw, seem to once again be ignoring what Ava wants. She says it again. Ava chose Deb over Iceland because she wants to be here with Deb. And I don’t know why people keep thinking this is a terrible idea for her? Is Deb a toxic boss? Yes, but the toxicity in their relationship (the early on abuse) is pretty much dealt with and is something that can be fixed. It’s been fixed. Ava writing for Deb is not a career killer either – it’s a good resume!

    I’m just saying…. I don’t know why people keep thinking they know what is better for Ava than herself.

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