“Hacks” is all about Jean Smart, and if you don’t enjoy her dry, direct delivery and her tough-broad demeanor, you have no business here. The HBO Max comedy is first and foremost a vehicle for her, one that starts off shakily but gets sturdier with each new half-hour. Smart has done some strong dramatic work of late, with “Fargo,” “Mare of Easttown,” and “Watchmen,” but this is Smart milking each line of dialogue for its most dazzling ironies.
Smart plays a legendary comic named Deborah Vance who has a regular gig on the Las Vegas strip. Like the lead of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” she is not Joan Rivers but reminiscent of her. She is the Joan Rivers who has already made a name for herself, but who is in need of some freshening up. Deborah is essentially operating on automatic pilot onstage, as she tosses predictable punch lines to her uncritical audiences. She knows she’s just treading water, because she is a master of the art of creating a sharp joke; but she’s lost her motivation.
Soon, the owner of the casino starts to cut down the number of her shows, and she panics. Through some awkward sitcom mechanics, the comedy (created by Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello, and Jen Statsky) gets her to team up with a young comedy writer named Ava (Hannah Einbinder), who hates Deborah’s style of comedy. Einbinder is a good foil for Smart, even if her glum self-absorption can be trying.
The mutual contempt between Deborah and Ava grows until, after a few episodes, they start to accept each other. They’re both hardcore cynics, and they begin to find common ground. Deborah becomes a kind of hard-nosed mentor to Ava, pushing her to look up from her navel. And Ava challenges Deborah to take stock. Wisely, Smart never lets their growing connection feel mushy; Deborah remains committed to her intense work ethic and her unsentimental point of view. She’s tirelessly blunt, and better off that way.