Jean Smart Is Having a Third Act for the Ages

Calling someone a “hack” is a particularly vicious insult. It implies that they have no talent or, worse, that they have wasted it. The slight is hurled early on in “Hacks,” the popular HBO series starring Jean Smart as Deborah Vance, a seasoned comedian who teams up with a younger one named Ava (Hannah Einbinder) to freshen up her act.

When they meet, Ava takes stock of Deborah — her glitzy mansion, her residency at a casino in Las Vegas, a hustle selling branded merchandise on cable TV — and sees her as the definition of a hack, a sellout cashing in on her former fame. Deborah is unfazed. Amused, even. What does this kid know about her career, about years of hard work, about the unfairness, sexism and disregard?

Deborah, meanwhile, sees Ava as a bit of a hack herself — an entitled and spoiled young internet persona who was canceled for posting a joke about a closeted senator. (“Sounds like a Tuesday for me,” Deborah retorts when Ava complains about it.) Deborah is a workaholic on the verge of bitter, someone who grew tired of being cut and so became a knife. She’s shameless, litigious, petty, vengeful, stubborn — qualities that become a comedic asset for the character and a narrative engine for the show. Just how far is Deborah Vance willing to go?

Throughout the first two seasons, much of the drama — and delight — is in seeing Ava puncture Deborah’s carefully lacquered facade with her Gen Z earnestness and sharp wit. In one of the show’s funniest moments, Deborah bluntly asks Ava, “You a lesbian?” Ava leans back in her chair while considering the question. She responds with a treatise reflecting the identity politics of a generation raised with nonexistent boundaries and zero sexual shame, ending with a graphic description of how she orgasms. Deborah doesn’t miss a beat. “Jesus Christ!” she exclaims. “I was just wondering why you were dressed like Rachel Maddow’s mechanic!” Deborah and Ava are mirrors for each other, gifted and perspicacious performers at opposite ends of their careers, both trying to be their most audacious selves in an industry that will dispose of them the moment they cross an invisible line.

Over the last three years, “Hacks” has earned its two Emmy nominations for outstanding comedy series by cultivating a polyphonic, fast-paced humor relentless as Deborah’s own quick mind. There are constant insult jokes about Ava’s appearance (“Your manicurist must use a paint roller!”); manic banter between Jimmy, Deborah’s beleaguered agent, and his delusional assistant (played brilliantly by the comedian Meg Stalter); antic bits like a seemingly poignant scene of Deborah’s daughter playing classical piano as a reflection of her gilded upbringing, before it devolves into absurdity when the music is revealed to be the theme song from “Jurassic Park.” And then there are the battles royale in which Ava and Deborah fire hilarious barbs back and forth until their frustration gives way to awe at each other’s cleverness and something like respect blooms. It’s weaponized therapy.

Hannah Einbinder and Jean Smart in the new season of ‘‘Hacks.’’Credit…Max

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