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How Milton native Jen Statsky helped make ‘Hacks’ a hit

The writer and series co-creator can trace the Emmy-nominated show’s beginnings to a road trip to Maine

"Hacks" co-creator Jen Statsky.
"Hacks" co-creator Jen Statsky.Andrew Law

“Hacks” was always going to be a romantic comedy, in a way.

The HBO Max series, which premiered in May and received a whopping 15 Emmy nominations, including for best comedy, charts the love-hate-love relationship between a 69-year-old stand-up comedian (Jean Smart) and the 25-year-old writer (Hannah Einbinder) hired to punch up her work.

“We really set out to tell this kind of complex, dynamic, sometimes dark, sometimes fraught relationship between these two characters,” says “Hacks” co-creator and Milton native Jen Statsky, who describes the pair as “two women at very different ages who have this very special bond and speak this special love language, which is that of jokes and comedy and making each other laugh.”

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At the start of the series, both characters are at a standstill in their careers. Smart’s Deborah Vance has seemingly peaked with a lucrative Las Vegas residency, where she’s been doing the same set for years and is now being boxed out by newer talent. Einbinder’s Ava Daniels has been all but run out of Los Angeles after a risky tweet cost her a TV writing deal. The two resent each other for their respective situations, but find common ground in a shared sense of humor, acquired decades apart. Both actresses have been nominated for Emmys for their roles in the series.

The show features all the beats of a rom-com (an onion-like peeling of layers, a knock-down, drag-out fight, a grand, loving gesture that attempts to soothe it all) and even pays homage to a few of the genre mainstays. Statsky notes that the rom-com rhythms were “definitely intentional” in the development of the series.

Hannah Einbinder (left) as Ava and Jean Smart as Deborah in "Hacks."
Hannah Einbinder (left) as Ava and Jean Smart as Deborah in "Hacks." Anne Marie Fox/HBO Max

The idea for the show originated six years ago during a Massachusetts-to-Maine road trip that Statsky took with “Hacks” co-creators Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs. Statsky picked up the couple at Aniello’s aunt’s house in Waltham, and the trio spent the trip spitballing ideas about a seasoned entertainer who hadn’t gotten the same due as her male counterparts. The story simply stuck with the three of them, never quite going away as they worked on other projects, both together and apart (all three are known for their work on “Broad City”).

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Individually, Statsky has written for several popular comedies, including “Parks and Recreation” and “Lady Dynamite.” Most notably, she worked on “The Good Place,” NBC’s fantasy series about the afterlife. All of Statsky’s projects have a similar verve. She credits her interest in “the messiness of people figuring themselves out, and also dealing with trauma and how it affects them in the present day, and how it affects how they treat themselves and others.”

“All these shows connect to this very real thing of people trying to be better people and also doing it — not alone — but very specifically with the help of someone else,” Statsky says.

Connections are everything, and even early on, the plan was always to keep Ava and Deborah’s relationship at the core of the show. They grapple with the various entanglements of their lives — exes, Ava’s mother, Deborah’s daughter — but come back to each other.

“We see romantic love portrayed a lot, we see familial love portrayed a lot, but we hadn’t necessarily seen this kind of creative love between people explored too much,” Statsky says. “It was very interesting for us to dive into that. And I think obviously, partially, the reason it’s so interesting is because it’s something we’ve been lucky enough to experience.”

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“My creative collaboration with Paul and Lucia is one of the most important, rewarding, rich relationships in my life,” she adds. “I think a lot of people in our industry who are lucky enough to be in healthy, productive creative collaborations feel that way.”

Among the Emmy nominations for “Hacks,” Statsky, Downs, and Aniello share one for writing.

As Statsky describes the excitement of creative partnership and betterment, she turns to a scene from the penultimate episode of “Hacks,” where Deborah is talking to a reporter.

“When you share a sense of humor, it’s like speaking your own special language,” Statsky says, paraphrasing the line from the script. “And that’s exactly how I feel.”

Lillian Brown can be reached at brownglillian@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @lilliangbrown.