.css-ftsoqv{display:block;margin-bottom:0.625rem;}.css-ftsoqv img{vertical-align:top;}.css-1dc3fjj{background-color:bg-block-content-four-across;}.css-h01skt{background:linear-gradient(to bottom,#F5F5F5 0,#F5F5F5 100%);-webkit-background-position:0 100%;background-position:0 100%;-webkit-background-size:0 0;background-size:0 0;display:inline;font-family:SangBleuOGSerifRegular,SangBleuOGSerifRegular-roboto,SangBleuOGSerifRegular-local,Georgia,Times,Serif;font-size:1.25rem;font-weight:400;letter-spacing:0.0075rem;line-height:1.4;margin-bottom:0;margin-top:0.75rem;-webkit-text-decoration:none;text-decoration:none;}@media (any-hover: hover){.css-h01skt:hover{color:link-hover;}}@media(max-width: 48rem){.css-h01skt{font-size:1rem;line-height:1.4;}}.css-h01skt:hover{-webkit-background-size:0.625rem 3.125rem;background-size:0.625rem 3.125rem;}”Hacks” and the Endless Pressures of Reinvention

At the start of the third season of Hacks, legendary comedian Deborah Vance has a dilemma: Does a joke sound funnier with the word toilet or shitter? To help her decide, she asks Gen Z writer Ava Daniels, who was formerly her comedy partner but from whom she’s now professionally estranged. When a Tom Cruise–gifted coconut cake helps them to reconcile, Ava informs her that toilet is, in fact, funnier.

Hacks is a show that is ostensibly about the craft of comedy, and the niche obsessions, beefs, and insecurities of those who spend their lives trying to make other people laugh. But it’s also about relationships, particularly the complex bond between Deborah (Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder). These two women look and sound totally different, but they are united by the common goals of redemption and reinvention. They’re both fighting for relevancy in the incredibly competitive comedy world, and they find, over and over, that they get closest when they work together. Hacks doesn’t merely explore the constraints society places on female stars, or the lonely glory of “making it” as a woman—it asks whether they can be overcome.

When we first met Deborah and Ava in the first season of Hacks, they were stuck in separate ruts. Comedy icon and QVC maven Deborah was on autopilot at her Las Vegas residency, telling the same jokes every night to easily pleased crowds. Struggling writer Ava had been recently “canceled” over a clumsy tweet and seemed overwhelmed by the gulf between her ambitions and her status as an industry pariah.

Together, the pair reimagined Deborah’s act as a retrospective of her decades-long career. As Ava pushed her to step out of her comfort zone—mining her trauma for laughs—we saw that Deborah still had scars from the betrayals and failures of her long career.

On the other hand, Deborah taught Ava the resilience she would need to make it. “You think this is hard?” she scolded the younger comic. “You have to scratch and claw and it never fucking ends. And it doesn’t get better. It just gets harder.”

Through Deborah, we’re reminded that women in the public eye are chastised both for changing too much and for not changing enough. It’s a burden felt by even the most famous. Taylor Swift has leaned into “eras” as a concept and cashed in heavily by doing so. (Later this summer, she will conclude her Eras Tour—a multibillion-dollar monument to the singer’s ability to reinvent herself.) But in April, when Swift dropped her new album(s), The Tortured Poets Department, the most common complaint I saw on my social feeds was that her new music didn’t deviate enough from her previous “eras,” Midnights and Folklore.

In Swift’s 2020 Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, she explained the pressure on female musicians to reinvent themselves “20 times more” than the men. “Be new to us, be young to us, but only in a new way and only in the way we want. And reinvent yourself, but only in a way that we find to be equally comforting,” she said. “Live out a narrative that we find to be interesting enough to entertain us, but not so crazy that it makes us uncomfortable.” In Hacks, Deborah is stalked by the same fear—that, no matter her achievements, she is only one bad decision away from being branded a “flop.” She often seems isolated by her success.

Still, the prize for reinventing yourself can be transformative. At the start of season three, everyone wants a piece of Deborah. The high-stakes risk she took on her comedy special paid off—and then some. Swift experienced something similar in 2014, when pop-crossover album 1989 saw her evolve from a country star to a cultural phenomenon.

More recently, country pivot Cowboy Carter has taken even Beyoncé’s blindingly bright star to a new stratosphere. And of course, we can’t forget the woman who created the blueprint for pop-star reinvention: Madonna. Last month, the Queen of Pop wrapped up her Celebration Tour—a tribute to her 40-year career—with a concert on Rio de Janeiro’s famous Copacabana beach, attended by a record-breaking 1.6 million people.

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Riding the high of her own retrospective, Deborah is on a similar path of reclamation. If the first two seasons were focused on the craft of comedy and relationship dynamics, the third has much more emphasis on the Succession-style strategizing behind Deborah’s career. (Hacks is basically Succession for people who never really understood what NFTs were.) Deborah sets her sights on the one thing that has always evaded her: hosting a late-night talk show. And as a coproducer on the successful sitcom On the Contrary, Ava is also making moves. During a panel discussion with industry experts, a young woman asks for tips on breaking into comedy. This time, it’s Ava’s turn to deliver the advice Deborah once gave her: “It doesn’t get better, it just gets harder.”

I’m on record arguing that reinvention is an innately queer theme. Hacks doesn’t bill itself as a queer comedy, but it’s one of the queerest shows on TV. Jean Smart and Deborah (whose life story is very similar to the late Joan Rivers’s) both have legions of gay fans. Throughout the show we see Ava’s relationship with her on-again, off-again girlfriend, Ruby, via her hookups with DoorDash drivers, Republican dominatrixes, and a trip on a lesbian cruise. Deborah’s assistant-turned-CEO, Marcus, also goes on a journey of discovery, including a doomed attempted relationship that sends him looking for answers on the dance floors of gay clubs.

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HBO

Hannah Einbinder and Jean Smart in Hacks

There is certainly something symbiotic about the queerness of Hacks and the show’s focus on reinvention. Whether it’s coming out of the closet and forging a new life for yourself, changing your body and appearance, or the long-held gay tradition of stanning women who have shapeshifted their way into longevity, reinvention is particularly relatable to an LGBTQ+ audience.

Hacks doesn’t flaunt itself as a “feminist show,” either. In fact, Deborah often disparages what she perceives as the victim-centered feminism of younger women like Ava. Still, the show explores the elevated standards that are placed on women with hilarious (and occasionally devastating) effect. In episode six, we see Deborah—a very talented golfer—pretending to be a novice in order to appear unthreatening to the male industry bosses she needs to impress.

Despite being on top of the world, there is a desperation to her—a sense that, in the final act of her career, time is running out. “Anything I want to do, I have to do it now. Otherwise I’ll never do it,” she tells Ava, when two of them get lost in the woods. “The best part of being young is that you don’t have to savor anything. That’s the ultimate luxury.”

It would be easy for Hacks to descend into a predictable schtick of boomer reactionary versus “woke” Gen Z moralizer. (After all, both Deborah and Ava enjoy playing up to those roles—usually as a way of provoking one another.) But their creative partnership flourishes because they respect each other and learn from their differences. In episode four, when Deborah is invited to spend an evening with the chauvinistic male comics she once idolized, she is confronted with the reality that, like it or not, Ava has softened her outlook on things. It is this reciprocity that makes their relationship—part familial, part professional, part adversarial—one of the most captivating on TV right now.

Perhaps the real message of Hacks isn’t just about all the extra pressures on women, but the blueprint Deborah and Ava provide for helping each other to thrive regardless. Deborah wants to equip Ava with the thick skin she needs to succeed—to be better than the best. And as much as she tries to push Ava away, the truth is that each of them rely on each other for that special, unplaceable something. Their ambitions are by no means friction-free, but it is by working (and laughing) together that they can both dream bigger. As Ava says in a New Yorker profile of her idol: “A hack is someone who does the same thing over and over. Deborah is the opposite. She keeps evolving and getting better.”

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Louis Staples is a freelance culture writer and critic based in London, UK. He writes “Cultural Staples” — a fortnightly culture essay at Bazaar.com. His work is featured in The Cut, The Guardian, Vogue, Rolling Stone, and Variety.