‘Hacks’ and the Tragedy of Cool

In the latest season of the HBO Max series, the facade of indifference unravels

Ava and Deborah sitting on a private plane.
Karen Ballard/HBO Max
Sam Moore
Caring Is Sharing

In the first episode of Season 2 of Hacks, HBO Max’s alternately tender and biting series about the relationship that forms between two comedians at polar opposite points in their careers, the protagonists revisit an old conversation about criticism. “I thought you don’t read reviews because you didn’t care,” says Ava (Hannah Einbinder), the 20-something who reluctantly became a joke writer for Las Vegas comedy institution Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) after losing a writing deal over an inflammatory tweet. Deborah has just performed an experimental new set featuring material that’s more personal — more likely to appear in a confessional Netflix special than on the Vegas Strip — and, in her own words, “bombed.”

It turns out Deborah has seen what critics had to say about her show in her local paper, contrary to her claim in Season 1 that she doesn’t read reviews because she doesn’t care about them. Deborah tries to maintain her indifference for as long as she can, but in the end, the mask slips when she responds to Ava: “I don’t read reviews because I do care. You’d figure at some point I’d stop.” This admission, wrung out of the veteran comic like blood from a stone, exposes a vulnerable truth: that Deborah, underneath an exterior hardened by decades in the industry, is not as imperviously cool as she would like to pretend.

The idea of cool is central to the characters of Hacks, from the edgy, irony-inflected comedy that Ava attempts on Twitter, to the easy confidence that Deborah exudes onstage. To be cool is to be singular; in Hacks, it is to exist at the junction of performance and effortlessness. There is a tension inherent in this construction of cool, one that the title of the series alludes to: to be a hack is to be derivative, unfunny, just like anybody else. It’s no wonder that Deborah slaps Ava across the face after the young writer calls her one in the climax of Season 1. For Deborah to be a hack would be to undermine the reputation and image she has worked so hard to cultivate. Her performance persona, both on and off the stage, hinges on a practiced indifference to the tragedies of her life — her husband running off with her sister, the loss of an almost history-making late night show — bolstered by a level of fame and fortune that allows her to occupy a rarefied position far from the petty concerns of normal people.

To be cool is to be singular ... to exist at the junction of performance and effortlessness.

But this version of coolness is more like a painful remove, Ava observes. It’s merely a projection of strength, at the cost of keeping everything and everyone around you at a distance in order to avoid vulnerability; Deborah asking her daughter DJ (Kaitlin Olson) to get her fiancé to stop calling her “mom.” The women of Hacks struggle with earnestness and genuine expressions of emotion: as if to admit to a sincere feeling, or acknowledge an affinity with the people and experiences that they make jokes at the expense of, would be to admit weakness. Ava is one of the only people to come close enough to Deborah to see through her facade — “it’s her own fault she’s lonely. And although she’s too selfish to admit it, I think that’s why she needs her adoring fans,” Ava writes of her boss in a scathing, drunken email in Season 1 — and the older comedian can’t help but resent her for it.

Season 2 of the show, which takes the women on tour — boarding cruise ships and road-tripping to state fairs — to try out Deborah’s new material, further explores the gulf between the affectations of coolness and its lonely realities. Previously, Deborah had scoffed at Ava’s suggestions to write more honest, confessional jokes, asking the younger comic, “Your generation thinks it’s cool to tell sad stories?” But now Deborah is going all in on sad stories, and being honest with herself the only way she knows how — with a stage, a microphone, and an audience — only to find that her fans are struggling to connect with this new style. It’s worlds away from the Deborah that the public has grown to know and love, and while there are laughs here and there, her new material leaves audiences cold. She's no longer the confident, untouchable, record-breaking icon of the Las Vegas Strip; she is, as one former stalker tells her disappointedly, “kind of a bummer.” Far from her kingdom, she finds her fame, her public coolness, fading. At a gas station, a stranger struggles to place her, asking, “You’re famous, right?” Deborah’s response: “Apparently not.”

Ava, too, is constrained by her self-imposed prison of cool. She feels like she has no choice but to maintain an affected distance from the rest of the world, uncertain how to function if that distance were to vanish, if ironic detachment were to be replaced with real feelings. In the wake of losing her own shot at success, she desperately tries to claw her way back into the industry that ousted her, even while feigning disdain for her peers who have scored better deals than she has, the ones working on hit TV shows and blockbuster films. From the very beginning of Hacks, Ava is playing defense: trying to justify the dicey tweet about a conservative senator’s gay son that got her fired; attempting to distance herself from the “Panera people,” her name for Deborah’s Vegas fans. For Ava, cool is the language of rebellion, of giving the finger to the establishment. But as Hacks unfolds, it becomes clear that this reaction comes from a place of bitterness and, ultimately, vulnerability: if her old friends shun her, she can’t find her way into a writer’s room, and Hollywood doesn’t want her, then that’s fine; Hollywood sucks anyway.

Ava, we learn, has always been a lonely person; as a kid, she “drew faces on pillows and talked to them” — a habit that her mom insists gave her a good sense of humor. For both Ava and Deborah, comedy is a shield and a coping mechanism — it lets them turn real feelings into quips, sardonic lines to shrug off before the sadness, pain, or regret become too real.

In Season 2, it’s the moments between jokes that have the most power: Ava tells Deborah about her fractured relationship with her father, how she refused to watch basketball with him, even though it would have cost nothing and brought them closer. Onstage, as Deborah continually refines her material about her husband leaving her, she lingers on the line: “Betrayal is the worst feeling in the world.” In both instances, there’s the expectation of a follow-up wisecrack, a laugh, a shrug to defuse the raw, emotional, uncomfortable truth. But it never comes. There is nothing funny to hide behind. Finally, the facade of cool comes down, leaving just two women, lonely and hurt, searching for a connection.

Sam Moore is a writer and editor. Their work on art, culture, and identity has been published by Frieze, NeoText, and i-D, among other places.