Why ‘Hacks’ Wouldn’t Work Without Ava as Deborah Vance’s Prickly Foil

“Hacks” is as pure a two-hander as I’ve seen on television in recent years — a comedy buoyed by the prickly, slow-to-develop relationship between two characters with utterly different approaches to comedy, but similar stumbling blocks. Both Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) are carefully-written, elegantly played characters; each one fuels the show’s action through stubborn commitment to her own perspective, along with, gradually, some growth.

But while Smart has, justly, been hailed for her work on the series, Einbinder’s work, like her character, feels relatively unheralded. This is surprising to a viewer who sees the show as a well-balanced depiction of two complicated people, and should have been expected by anyone who recalls the strangely intense pitch of conversation around “Girls” and its protagonist, Hannah Horvath. There is something about common human traits embodied by a young person that seems to rankle viewers. To wit: Ava, who exists somewhere between millennial and Zoomer, is frustratingly self-centered, slow to recognize the opportunity she’s been handed, and a challenge to be around. The trick of “Hacks” is that all of those descriptors fit Deborah, too.

To reiterate: Ava is no picnic, and the show knows this. When she enters Deborah’s world, Ava has made herself unhireable by posting an off-color joke on social media. Her misfortune and unemployability, we sense, is owed as much to one misguided joke as to her general failure to accumulate any real defenders in her time working in the entertainment industry. She refuses to see in Deborah someone from whom she could learn anything at all.

But Deborah similarly spurns Ava, refusing to see how or why anything she says even is comedy, let alone good comedy. The pair of characters grow together, with Deborah turning on to Ava’s style just as Ava learns about Deborah’s thwarted legacy, and it’s a bit odd that only one of the two is widely being read as especially ungrateful or unkind. They’re both ungrateful and unkind to one another — they’re two comedians existing somewhere between collaboration and competition.

Another major critique of Ava is that she’s unfunny, but her Dadaist anti-comedy feels closer to the heart of where the medium is today than Deborah’s material at the show’s outset. And Ava’s openness to experience — whether it’s getting a little too into the slots at her casino or pursuing a strange one-night affair with a fellow guest — suggests a sprightly curiosity about the world around her that would serve a comedian well, and a willingness to pry out absurdities towards which Deborah has grown jaded. Just about the only entity about which Ava isn’t curious is, at least at first, Deborah, and it’s only fair to concede that the feeling is mutual. (That the pair eventually grow close to a degree neither might have expected is a sign that both characters are more complex than a first glance might have allowed.)

The fame and reputation of Joan Rivers, with whom Deborah shares certain similarities, has tended to occlude the reality of “Hacks.” Viewed as a meta-series about the late Rivers, “Hacks” makes Ava look churlish — who wouldn’t want to learn from a near-universally-acknowledged master of her craft? But Deborah isn’t literally Joan; for one thing, she hasn’t enjoyed the late-in-life career reappraisal Rivers received after the release of the 2010 documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” a film that cast her refusal to turn down any gig as heroic. In the world of “Hacks,” Deborah is widely seen as just that. Is it really that surprising that it takes Ava a beat or two to understand what about Deborah is special? And if she somehow did from the first, would a show about a successful celebrity whose employee really likes her be very interesting at all? (I suspect it’d be a lot like “Entourage.”)

There is a sharply drawn generation gap at the heart of “Hacks,” but just as Deborah is not literally Joan, Ava is not an every-Zoomer; she stands first for herself rather than for the sort of broad lessons it might be tempting to draw from her. We learn, especially as the season ends, that her prickliness and resistance to being told what to do originate from a place of deep sorrow and confusion. This hopefully changed a few minds about the place Ava is coming from, but I don’t, strictly speaking, even think it was necessary. Why should a show about two female comics prioritize geniality and pleasantness? Ava is passionate about what she does and has high — if misguided — standards, some of which she’ll outgrow. That’s enough to make some segment of the viewership care if she gets what she wants. The rest of her is real in a way that Einbinder, a natural actor who teases endless complication out of a seeming frosty reserve, conjures with brutal effectiveness. The beauty of Einbinder’s superlative performance is in seeing a young person attempt to figure out which aspects of her core values she truly believes, and which are simply poses, to uncover what truly deserves the full force of her sneer. To discount that journey in favor of a character who’s long since figured that out is to only get half the story “Hacks” is telling.

It’s hard to deny that, as Deborah, Smart is the action of “Hacks” — a veteran performer coming into her own at long last with a lead role truly worthy of her talents, playing a character whose job, and chief skill, is holding audiences rapt. Of course she’s fascinating. But it’s through Einbinder’s perspective we see everything. If you like the show’s depiction of Las Vegas as an absurd wasteland of goofy excess, you like seeing it through Ava’s eyes; if you’re thrilled as Deborah reclaims her time with explicitly political material later in the season, you’re enjoying the impact Ava has had. It’s my sincere hope that Einbinder gets as much awards attention for “Hacks” as does Smart, and that the show’s future seasons continue to keep up a delicate and challenging balancing act, showing us both a comedian with the power to transport an audience and another who’s still figuring out exactly who she wants to be. As played by a gifted young star, that process is transporting, too.

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