August 30, 2021

Television

Funny business: ‘Hacks’

By Craig Mathieson

Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder star in Hacks

Tracking a growing friendship between two comics, bittersweet comedy series ‘Hacks’ leads August’s streaming highlights

In the bittersweet comedy series Hacks (Stan), being funny is everything: a source of pride, a means of support and the first line of defence. What’s in doubt for the two comedians the series charts – veteran stand-up star and Las Vegas fixture Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and upstart young comedy writer Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) – is whether comedy allows for intimacy. Thrown together by the former’s desire to prove she can keep her casino show fresh and the latter’s desire to get a gig after being run out of Los Angeles, the two women are employer and employee, first and foremost, but what binds them is not merely a budding friendship but rather the ability to recognise and accept what divides them. It’s only when Deborah and Ava respect each other that the best comic insults fly.

Created by Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky (all alumni of the warmly anarchic NYC comedy Broad City), this impressive show is skilfully constructed. It utilises sitcom placeholders, such as a disastrous job interview that nonetheless ends with Deborah hiring Ava, and updates them with piquant humour. Another comic staple – two mismatched characters getting high together – only occurs after Deborah has had some work done at an exclusive plastic surgery clinic, and instead of merely telling Ava she likes her Deborah reveals that her legendary private life, which all of America knows, is actually a myth she has allowed to flourish because it helped buoy her career. When you’re obsessed with your work, as both women are, your own life is just fresh material waiting to be punched up.

Both Einbinder and Smart (who is coming off show-stealing performances in Watchmen and Mare of Easttown) are exceptional as artists who’ve kept the world at a distance. Their sparring is a philosophical enquiry into the mechanics of humour. “Traditional joke structure is very male,” Ava tells Deborah, setting up a generational divide that the show’s 10 episodes bridge with uncomfortable realisations and stinging sentiment. Series that feature a showbiz star among the protagonists usually embrace satire, but Deborah’s elevated status (with its echoes of Joan Rivers’ groundbreaking rise) allows for harsh truths and sombre observations to be revealed. In the same way that Las Vegas is depicted as a complex entertainment ecosystem and not merely a gaudy getaway, Hacks knows that getting someone to laugh is the first step towards understanding them.

Just as the acidic espionage comedy Killing Eve is starting to run on fumes, the gifted Sandra Oh headlines a new series that implicitly understands her performance mix of naturalistic drama and melancholy comedy. In The Chair (Netflix), Oh plays Dr Ji-yoon Kim, the newly promoted dean of the English faculty at a storied American university whose bold plans must make way for crisis management when her best friend and fellow lecturer, Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), stumbles into a classroom blunder that swiftly incites student protest. Told with brevity and a discerning eye, this comic drama depicts the struggle of liberal arts academia in the 21st century, the cultural gap between students and institutions and the terror of faculty cocktail parties. Pulled one way and another, both at work and home, Oh’s Ji-yoon makes the struggles of middle management a richly lived-in proposition.

While it carries the weight of being the first prominent US series to be created and staffed almost entirely by Native American creatives and crew, Reservation Dogs (Binge) is notably quick-witted and creative. Created by Seminole and Muscogee filmmaker Sterlin Harjo, and backed by New Zealand’s Taika Waititi, the plot tails four Native American teens from a rural Oklahoma town looking to make petty crime pay so they can relocate to better prospects in California. It brings a deadpan humour and bracing sense of people and place to the coming-of-age format as adolescent ambitions and structural failings butt up against each other, so that structural inequality and personal idiosyncrasies are intertwined throughout the same haphazard locale. As unhurried as the Oklahoma locals who dot the cast (the series was shot on location), Reservation Dogs makes you feel embedded in a community cast aside from mainstream America.

In brief: Australia got a new streaming service this month in Paramount+, a rebranding of the 10 All Access service to carry the many programming strands of the US entertainment conglomerate ViacomCBS. The original headline series were patchy, but Paramount+ did provide a home for the second season of Five Bedrooms, the wry share-house drama that previously aired on Network Ten but had too much resemblance to real life to flourish on Australian commercial television. Brand New Cherry Flavour (Netflix) is a mordant period horror, turning the Hollywood of 30 years ago into a netherworld of supernatural revenge as a young independent filmmaker (Rosa Salazar) mistakenly empowers an otherworldly tattoo artist (Catherine Keener). Its weirdness is a welcome throwback for Netflix. Nine Perfect Strangers (Amazon Prime) is a mash-up of Agatha Christie, wellness satire and Nicole Kidman delivering an outrageous Russian accent. It’s ludicrous, but knows it, and with an all-star cast – Melissa McCarthy, Michael Shannon and Luke Evans all feature – it’s best appreciated as an incredibly expensive reboot of Fantasy Island.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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