The Unicorn Scale: Hacks

By Jennie Roberson

July 23, 2021

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Photo credit: Image/HBO Max

Longtime readers will know I’m an artist and performer in multiple mediums — actor and writer, primarily, but also a painter, director, producer, and even an editor. (Indeed, every day, I’m hustlin'.) And since many of my outlets focus on a comedic viewpoint, I get asked over and over again if I’ve considered doing stand-up.

And the truth is — I have tried it. About every five years or so, I gather up the nerve (or gall, depending on who you’re talking to) to get up on stage and grab that mic. Sometimes a friend asks me to fill in a five-minute slot. Sometimes I actually venture out to try out some jokes. Nine times out of ten, I bomb so hard everyone takes to Facebook to ask if there was an earthquake. And that’s okay! Because I don’t pursue it for two reasons:

1) I respect stand-up too much as a career and art form to make it a hobby,

2) I suck at it, and it would take way too much commitment from me to get good at it.

Truth is, stand-up is much tougher than even seasoned artists assume it is — because there’s no one else up there to fall back on.

People, in general, don’t get how long it takes to craft a perfect joke or a “tight five” (AKA five-minute set). You have to love it, love it hard, and really not feel passionate about most other things in order to become one of the greats. And that is something that HBO Max’s Hacks understands deep in its bones.

Ava is kneeling near the blue car and Deborah, with her arms crossed, looks off to the distance with a smile.they are on the side of the road.
Image/HBO Max

But before I get too deep into covering this generational comedy, let’s go over some business for those who are new to this column (and whoever would just love a refresher). First and foremost, I should note that this article contains SPOILERS (though, hey, the season in question only has ten episodes at half an hour a pop, so it shouldn’t take too long to catch up). Also, if this is your first time around these parts and you have no idea what the Unicorn Scale is all about, you can find out what the metric is about here.

Hacks is a comedy-drama that focuses on the career of fading stand-up pioneer Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), who gets stuck with hiring recently-outcast upstart comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) as a last resort for both of them to give their careers a shot in the arm.

What I Liked: 

While Hacks is getting tons of attention and praise for Smart’s performance (and rightly so — it’s yet another revelation in this always-reliable actress’ Jean-aissance). But today, I want to focus on the other main character, Ava.

Ava wearing a flannel shirt, has her phone in her hands and is looking at someone off camera with a serious face.
Image/HBO Max

Einbinder’s character has so much that I love done so casually that most of my checkboxes got ticked off before even a third of the season was done. In the pilot, we get to see Ava’s attraction to lovers of multiple genders (one an old flame, another a quick fling). By the second episode, she relays a beautiful, funny monologue to Deborah about her sexuality and defines herself as bi (and continues to use the term throughout the series). She has no problem calling out Deborah’s casual monosexism. And Ava is played by an openly out, bi actress!

But there is so much more to Ava than her queerness. Her sexual orientation is not the crux of what we know about or care about with her character (though it is a facet that comes into play with her arc). I just love that she is a big ol’ messy bi in the High Fidelity vein. While Ava makes a lot of impulsive (and, at times, foolish) choices and mistakes, Hacks works hard to keep her from becoming the villain or even antihero and rather makes her a flawed, relatable hero we can connect with. This comedic writer is chock-a-block full of hopes and fears, strengths and flaws — and a formidable equal to the trailblazing comic she has been assigned to work with.

Deborah and Ava sitting on opposite side of a living room having a tense conversation.
Image/HBO Max

What I Didn't Like:

Eh. Ava can be a real dill-hole and speak and act before she thinks, but it’s in a way that shows that, when she’s called out for it, she can learn from her mistakes and grow. She does get self-righteous in many of her political asides as well as her comedic approach (and that’s coming from someone who has the exact same ideology). But that said, I also have more of a Deborah-esque set-up/punchline joke mindset, so there are likely some of my antiquated biases at play here.

The Rating:

Hacks has so much going for it, especially with how they set up and execute layers of Ava’s character. Her queerness is pronounced, layered, and seen in action, but at the same time, the writers don’t have her character standing on a soapbox and making her identity all about her bisexuality. But with the groundwork they’ve laid — and a second season already announced — there is still plenty to explore with Ava, Deborah, and their complex friendship (and fraught professional dynamic). It more than deserves an encore.

Ava wearing a white tanktop and jeans, sitting on top of sleek blue car, and is on the phone with a concerned look.
Image/HBO Max

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