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Jean Smart on stage as comedian Deborah Vance in HBO’s Hacks

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HBO Max’s dark comedy Hacks hid a huge TV moment in a low-key scene

How to thrive when no one wants to listen to you

Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max

One of the most quietly revolutionary scenes I’ve seen on television this year was tucked away in “New Eyes,” the sixth episode of HBO Max’s new dark comedy Hacks, which just released on May 27. In the scene, young comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) has been taken to the hospital by her boss Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), a legendary Las Vegas comedy diva, after severe abdominal pain caused Ava to abruptly collapse. At the hospital, the doctor tells Ava she’s dehydrated, and dismissively tells her it’ll pass — and then Deborah, indignant, raises her voice to demand that the doctor take Ava’s pain more seriously and give her a CT scan. He does. That’s it. That’s the whole scene. It’s a brief moment that encapsulates why Hacks makes for great TV worth watching, even though it doesn’t start out that way.

In the show’s first two episodes, Hacks’ creators — Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky, all of whom worked on Broad City — set the show up to appear as a simple generational comedy. Deborah is playing Vegas six nights a week, but her reign on the strip is beginning to diminish. Tourists in 2021, her manager tells her, would much rather see a Pentatonix show. Ava, meanwhile, is suffering blowback from a mean tweet directed at a Republican politician. The resulting right-wing outrage has seemingly put her out of work.

This is the show at its weakest, as an odd-couple pairing between a legendary comedian who has forged her own path, and a flailing young upstart who could learn a thing or two from those who came before her. Fortunately, the writers are interested in more. As we learn about Ava and Deborah’s pasts, Hacks starts to center the story not on their generational differences, but on the ways a generation of increased equality and visibility for women in the entertainment industry hasn’t really changed things for either of them. They still have to fight to make people listen to them.

Jean Smart sits at her vanity table while Hannah Einbinder stands behind her in Hacks Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max

This is the crux of that scene in the hospital. Hacks doesn’t make a particularly big deal out of the moment. Ava ends the episode recovering from a quick, uncomplicated surgery to remove a ruptured ovarian cyst (which, it goes unsaid, wouldn’t have been treated if Deborah had let the doctor send Ava home). She seems fine afterward. Nothing about the episode makes it seem like Hacks is going to dwell on this incident further. But a doctor not listening to a female patient is a very real thing that anchors what the series is trying to do through the lens of the comedy world — another, albeit lower-stakes scene driven largely by arrogant men dismissive of women.

Vital to this scene is the fact that Ava isn’t really a sympathetic character. In the prior episodes, she only interacts with friends in ways that make it clear that one bad tweet isn’t the only reason she can’t find work. She’s been called out for her shameless careerism, and for generally being kind of an entitled mess. Deborah too, has misanthropic moments — right before Ava’s medical emergency, she and Ava prank a hotel maid into thinking Deborah overdosed. These are prickly jerks, but they’re also jerks who operate in an industry and a world that barely affords them dignity — an idea that the scene in the hospital room quietly foregrounds. That same idea is clear elsewhere in the show, which details Deborah’s showbiz history, and reveals how it was easier for her to keep her career by embracing sexist rumors about her than by telling the truth.

Hacks is a comedy, so it does all this with a steady helping of jokes — maybe not as many as Broad City, but more than, say, Girls. The creators also maintain just enough perspective to keep its white, privileged subjects from becoming grating. (A favorite gag: Deborah’s complaints about the city “water cop” policing her lawn-watering habits, and her COO Marcus deliberately running her sprinklers to try and lure him in for a hookup.) The show doesn’t always succeed — Ava feels underwritten and dull compared to Deborah Vance’s effortlessness, boosted by Jean Smart’s performance. But how could Deborah not be this way? You only yell at a doctor like she does when you know why doctors don’t take you seriously, and what might happen if you don’t force them to.

Not every big moment on television has to come packaged in a landmark episode that breaks the established format, the way BoJack Horseman would stop its Hollywood satire in its tracks to deliver gut-punch episodes about addiction or depression. Sometimes, big shifts are quieter than that, marked by brief moments that only go noticed if someone is looking for them. Hacks does this elegantly, well within the boundaries of what, thus far, passes for one of its normal episodes.

Hannah Einbinder slouches in a green chair behind a glass wall in Hacks Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max

An unfortunate truth about the present moment in the entertainment industry is that while on-screen representation is on the rise, women and people of color are still shut out of behind-the-scenes positions. And in spite of that on-screen representation, studies still show a pronounced gender gap when it comes to prominent roles, further complicated by the fact that women disproportionately have to deal with ageist attitudes that just don’t affect their male counterparts.

These are all the sort of problems that signal things haven’t changed enough to make men in power any less dismissive of the women beneath them. Maybe those dismissive, controlling men will always be around. But shows like Hacks can, with a single scene, let its writers push back without making it the central focus of the episode. A scene highlighting and resisting doctors’ longstanding dismissal of women is just there, part of the texture of the story. It briefly acknowledges an unspoken weight on one of its characters, one that led her down the path to where the audience finds her now. It’s another thing I take in as I watch Deborah and wonder at her ease, her prickliness. I think about what other indignities small and large she might have suffered in order to hold onto her small corner of Las Vegas, and also about what could have been for her, if nobody was casually, dismissively holding her back.