TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Today, the streaming service HBO Max premieres the first two episodes of a new sitcom starring Jean Smart. It's called "Hacks" and features her as a stand-up comic who's been a longtime fixture in Las Vegas. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: I just raved about Jean Smart last month when she began appearing in the HBO miniseries "Mare Of Easttown," playing the caustic mother of Kate Winslet's small town detective. She still can be seen in that impressive role on HBO. But now, starting tonight on HBO Max, she also can be seen in another series. And in this one, she's the star. And she's even more impressive. The new series, a comedy, is called "Hacks." Jean Smart stars as Deborah Vance, a veteran stand-up comic with a long running stage act in Vegas. Her act is so long running, in fact, it set a Vegas record, 2,500 shows at the same casino, the Palmetto. In this scene, Deborah is finishing lunch with the casino's owner, Marty, played by Christopher McDonald. They've been discussing a celebratory stage show. But Marty surprises her by introducing another topic.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HACKS")
CHRISTOPHER MCDONALD: (As Marty) Now that the big show's all planned, maybe it's a good time to talk about the future. You know you'll always be a part of the Palmetto's history. But maybe it'd be good if you did a few less shows a year.
JEAN SMART: (As Deborah) Good for who?
BIANCULLI: But Deborah isn't going to give up or give up her weekend Vegas show nights without a fight. She's always been a fighter ever since she starred in a TV sitcom decades ago and was on track to become the first female late night talk show host. She gets advice from her loyal assistant, Marcus, and her manager, Jimmy, both of whom encourage her to take on a much younger female writer to help punch up her act. Jimmy pushes for another of his clients, a 25-year-old former sitcom writer named Ava.
Ava, played by Hannah Einbinder, has already peaked in Hollywood. She's been let go from her sitcom because of a few tweets she wrote that some people found offensive. Ava's comic voice, like her voice in everyday life, tends to be too blunt, too unfiltered and makes too many people uncomfortable. She proves this the first day she meets Deborah, her new employer. But Deborah, played by Jean Smart, demonstrates the same thing and gets there first by asking Ava a very personal question.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HACKS")
SMART: (As Deborah) You a lesbian?
HANNAH EINBINDER: (As Ava) Not sure you can ask me that.
SMART: (As Deborah) Oh, what, someone's going to show up and arrest me?
EINBINDER: (As Ava) Since you're my employer, it is illegal. But if you're genuinely curious, I used to only hook up with men. In college, I finally hooked up with this amazing TA, Phoebe (ph). And I realized that I could connect more emotionally with women, which led to deeper sexual experiences. So anyway, I'm bi.
SMART: (As Deborah) Jesus Christ. I was just wondering why you were dressed like Rachel Maddow's mechanic.
BIANCULLI: Deborah and Ava are at the point in their respective careers, generations apart, where they need each other to survive. The first handful of episodes are full of delightful surprises as they try to make it work. "Hacks" has many funny and memorable supporting characters. And some of the plot twists are ingenious. Jimmy, the manager of both Deborah and Ava, is played by Paul W. Downs, who's one of the writers and creators of "Hacks." The others are Lucia Aniello, who directed the premiere episode, and Jen Slatsky (ph). All three came from "Broad City." And Slatsky (ph) also worked on "Parks And Recreation" and "The Good Place." So the writing is sharp, and it has to be to work because "Hacks" is about two very funny, quick-witted, suffer-no-fools women.
But "Hacks" also can work only if its leading ladies are just as powerfully individual, and these two are. Hannah Einbinder is a relative newcomer but has a notable comedy legacy. Her mother is original "Saturday Night Live" cast member Laraine Newman. And Jean Smart crushes this role in both the dramatic and comic scenes. She nails the stand-up sequences and the offstage banter. But she also relays every bit of the vulnerability and frustration and anger of a woman fighting sexism and ageism in the glitzy, showbiz world of Las Vegas.
It shouldn't be a surprise because Jean Smart made her mark on the outspoken feminist sitcom "Designing Women," and went on to make standout dramatic appearances on everything from "24" and TV's "Fargo" to two excellent genre dramas, "Legion" and "Watchmen." In "Mare Of Easttown," Jean Smart is a fabulous supporting actress. But in "Hacks," she has the best and biggest role of her career and inhabits it brilliantly.
GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. "Hacks," starring Jean Smart, begins today on HBO Max. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like this week's interview with Jean Smart or with Barry Jenkins, who directed the new series "The Underground Railroad" and the Oscar-winning movie "Moonlight," check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
(SOUNDBITE OF REGGIE QUINERLY'S "MY BLUE HEAVEN")
GROSS: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF REGGIE QUINERLY'S "MY BLUE HEAVEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.