By: Scott RossPublished: May 7, 2022

"Hacks" Litigates the Culture Wars Across the Gen X Divide

Are you a run-of-the-mill Gen Xer? Feeling kind of above it all, hate the culture wars, just wanna put your head down and get shit done for 50-60 hours a week and then maybe eat a few gummies and hang with your kids? Well, then Hacks is the show for you, a place where you can watch a Boomer and a Gen Zer battle hammer-and-tong over some of the hot button issues of the day, while maybe learning some valuable lessons about themselves, and maybe, just maybe, making friends. It’s not as awful as all that, in fact it’s great.

The show, which premiered on HBO Max last spring and returns May 12 with Season 2, stars national treasure Jean Smart, as a Joan Rivers-esque standup comedian whose residence in Vegas, at one of The Strip’s legendary dinosaurs, The Palmetto, is imperiled by her aging fanbase and shifts in the culture. Starring opposite Smart is Hannah Einbinder, daughter of SNL alum Lorraine Newman, playing a 25-year-old once-promising comedy writer who’s been blackballed because of a Twitter thread in which she assailed a US Senator for his hypocrisy regarding homosexuality.

Deborah (Smart) and Ava (Einbinder) are diametrically opposed in almost every way, but they have the same manager and thus are forced to meet cute. Their need for one another is as great as their mutual disdain, and there’s no one here representing the Truly Great Generation (that'd be Gen X), it’s just 10 rounds of Boomer vs Gen Z, high heels vs. combat boots, martinis vs. Xanax, blow and Molly, straight vs. bi… After calmly straddling the divide for decades, all a Gen Xer can do is curl up with a bowl of popcorn and enjoy the show.

Deborah has spent the last 50 years hacking her way through a jungle of misogynistic pricks, enduring handsy comedy club managers, a career-jealous husband, and even a therapist who coerced her into dating him in return for a clean bill of mental health so she could have custody of her kid. When she dumps him, he insists they see a couple’s counselor—"They always try to get you to do a threesome,” jokes Ava.

Deborah wakes up early, works out, takes meetings at 9, and has a notebook at hand at all times lest a joke comes to mind. Then there’s Ava, for whom 10am is a struggle and who complains about how hard things are for her. Deborah is less than sympathetic.

Hard? You think this is hard? You don’t know what hard is. You got plucked off the internet at, what? 20? You just got lucky… You have to scratch and claw and it never fucking ends. And it doesn’t get better, it just gets harder. So don’t complain to me that I’m making your life hard. You don’t even know what that means.

Though it was a tweet that sent Ava’s career spiraling downward, it becomes clear that it is her past striving that has doomed her efforts to craft a comeback; it turns out that her former colleagues saw through her “friendship” and recognized it as ruthless ambition. Ironically, she shares the Gen Z contempt for careerism, consumerism and wealth, but finds herself intoxicated by their fruits. As she sits at her first slot machine, she pulls deeply on her vape pen and says, sneering, “This game is such capitalist bullshit.” A beat later, when the bells start ringing, she’s full-out screaming “I won!!!”

Naturally, the two biggest battlefields for Deborah and Ava are where “the line” is for a joke, the point beyond which you cannot go, not even in the service of humor, and the sexual predation endemic to the world of comedy, both of which Hacks manages to explore without mentioning either Dave Chappelle or Louis CK.

When Ava recounts the tweet that torpedoed her career, Deborah snarls, “There is no line. It’s just not funny. You should be blacklisted for how bad that joke is.” On the one hand, yes, but on the other hand, the show atypically ducks the question of who the final arbiter of funny is. It’s a rare copout from the Hacks writers’ room.

Throughout the series, as Deborah tosses off anecdotes about the relentless indignities she’s had to endure as a woman in the world of comedy, Ava knits her brow, a horrified look on her face. Things don’t come to a head, however, until they visit one of the smaller clubs on the circuit where Deborah used to try out new material. After hearing all the awful things the club’s now deceased proprietor used to do to women—grab their asses, make them sit on his lap—Ava finally can’t take it anymore, expressing her dismay to Deborah.

“If I’m not upset about you, you shouldn’t be,” comes the reply, which leaves Ava not just unsatisfied, but incensed, accusing her of “looking out for (her) own career then?” And that’s when Deborah goes full HAM.

“Now you’re accusing me of being a ladder puller? Please! Just by being up on that stage, I gave other women more than I ever had. Forget the ladder, I built a marble fucking staircase.”

Moments later, with Ava’s accusations still ringing in her ears, Deborah watches the club’s MC relentlessly and unrepentantly objectify a young comedian’s breasts. With the struggle behind her and millions of dollars in her bank account, Deborah sees her chance to crush at least one bug before her career is over, and makes the most of it.

What makes the cultural tug-of-war across the generational divide even more impressive is how even handed it is, given the demographics of the creative team behind the show. Hacks is the brainchild of Lucia Aniello (39), her husband Paul W. Downs (39), and Jen Statsky (36), all of whom worked together on the brilliant Broad City. In an age where the centrifugal force of the ever-swirling rage machine of public discourse has pushed everyone deeper and deeper into their corners, these three Millennials have found a way to push for progress without vilifying their forefathers—or foremothers, for that matter. It’s an impressive trick.

Season 2 of Hackspremiers Thursday, May 12, on HBO Max

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