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Knives Out: Why ‘Hacks’ Works

Grab your cleaver, marvel at Jean Smart, and learn how one fishy scene unlocks the HBO Max comedy’s signature blend of physicality, precision, and chemistry 

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On the day the fish beheadings were scheduled to take place, the set of Hacks resembled a 17th-century painting. Piles of chilled piscine bods glistened on an expansive, expensive-looking countertop. Cartoonishly shaped knives lay ready for use. The lemons and rosemary sprigs employed to help diffuse the aroma of all the rainbow trout only added to the general vibe-o’-plenty in the room.

“It really honestly looked like one of those Dutch still lifes,” recalls Hacks cocreator and cast member Paul W. Downs last week over Zoom. Despite the apparent bounty, the props department issued a reminder that inventory for the shoot wasn’t limitless. “I remember them saying, like, guys, we only have 17 fish,” says cocreator Lucia Aniello, who directed the episode. “I was like, I’ve never done 17 takes on anything before. Don’t worry!”

One major reason not to worry was that the planned scene lay in the extremely capable hands of Jean Smart, who is right in the midst of a career renaissance and who “works the props better than I do,” says Gay Perello, the prop master for Hacks. Indeed, some of Smart’s most recent roles involved rather memorable interplay between the actress and her items. As a former vigilante-turned-FBI-agent in 2019’s Watchmen, Smart’s character carries around a sentimental giant blue vibrator in a briefcase to help remind her character of an omniscient ex. As a mouthy great-grandma in Mare of Easttown, she demonstratively slices and dices her way through games of Fruit Ninja on the iPad. And at the end of Episode 9 of Hacks—in which Smart plays Deborah Vance, a brassy comedy legend with a lotta dough and a plum-but-threatened residency in Las Vegas—she is tasked with wielding a cleaver and working with fish guts, all while facing a lie.


Deborah stands alone in her gorgeous grayscale kitchen, surrounded by fish and ice and herbs and knives as if she’s preparing a marine Midsommar. Her sleeves are rolled up, her bouffant wig has been shed, and her apron is crisply tied and covered in blood. She slices through fish flesh with the methodical efficiency of a surgeon or a serial killer. Far from the sequined, high-haired image that Deborah flaunts during her mildly stale, certified-Boomer-magnet stand-up routines and other public appearances, this is the artist at her most toned down and domestic. “Martha Stewart meets Tony Soprano” is how the showrunners, after brainstorming among themselves, decide to put it. Which is to say: She is eerily calm, extremely competent—and totally pissed.

Her employee, antagonist, and burgeoning confidante—a cocky and currently ostracized young comedienne named Ava, who is played by the real-life stand-up Hannah Einbinder—has just disappointed her, lying about a doctor’s appointment in order to sneak off to an interview for a cool new gig. Ava enters the classy and gross kitchen, not knowing what Deborah knows. As she stumbles through her faux excuses as to where she’s been, Deborah glowers at her, shaking spoonfuls of fish guts into a bowl with orchestral staccato.

“Wanna help?” she asks, brandishing a cleaver and telling Ava to come hold the fish’s tail so she can chop off its head. “Do you have another pair of gloves?” Ava asks, swallowing. “No,” Deborah lies with a smirk. “You’ll get used to it.”

And then she brings down her cleaver with cool, white-hot fury as Ava jumps and the credits roll. “That was pretty much a first for me,” Smart says over the phone about her kitchen assignment, explaining that gutting fish is not part of her typical repertoire. (Perello brought in Brandon Boudet, the chef from Little Dom’s in Los Angeles, to offer guidance.) “What I was worried about was that it really was super slippery, so I didn’t want to make any mistakes.” For Deborah Vance, however, having such mastery of a difficult and tedious process was in line with the character’s personality. “Deborah would really know how to gut a fish, and really have the right tools,” says Hacks cocreator Jen Statsky. “She always has the best of everything and has incredible knowledge of things that she cares about.”

It is the kind of scene that both elevates and deepens the luscious, vicious Hacks, which concluded its first season last week on HBO Max days after being renewed for a second one. Hacks succeeds thanks to the devoted physicality of its performances, the intentional precision of its creators, and the sometimes magnetic, sometimes wrenching chemistry of its characters. And this scene has all three. “That scene was, in a word, visceral,” Einbinder recalls in a phone call. “And in two words, visceral and pungent.” At some of its best moments, Hacks could be described that way too.

Even in scenes that don’t involve sharp objects or sea creatures, Hacks thrives when its actors play up small moments of physical heft. Deborah’s daughter, DJ, played by a phenomenally twitchy Kaitlin Olson, designs jewelry that looks so heavy it made my ears ache. A grieving widow (Jane Adams) gets herself so anxiously tangled in the phone cord while waiting on hold to cancel her late husband’s baseball channels that she needs help being unwound. And above all, the 69-year-old Smart throws every inch of her body into her performance, lending both whimsy and gravitas to the role of a comic who isn’t getting any younger or being treated any kinder.

We see Deborah’s confident posture on stage and we see her languishing in bed, bandaged and puffy after a minor plastic surgery “refresh.” Her wig goes on, her wig comes off. In a scene in which Ava goes to a wax museum so that she can unlock Deborah’s phone with the mannequin’s face, Smart played her character’s own wax figurine, coming up with a pose that she felt she could hold for a long time without moving a muscle, even though she was struggling with dry eyes that day. (Einbinder tried to make her crack, but Smart had the resolve of a Buckingham Palace guard. “Fortress of professionalism,” Einbinder says. “They don’t make ’em like her anymore.”)


“I think,” says Smart, “sometimes just physical moments, even without dialogue, are some of the most telling moments. Like the scene where she replaces the CO2 canister for her soda machine in her kitchen.” In that scene, viewers learn that Deborah has a fountain-style soda dispenser, complete with the pebbled red pizza parlor cups, in her kitchen; this is a woman who clearly likes what she likes. We also see that, in much the same way that Deborah coolly knows her way around a fish, she also can seamlessly replace the air cartridge while wearing high heels.

“She loves doing her own stunts,” says Statsky of Smart. “We’ve said before that she’s like Tom Cruise,” Downs adds. “You know, Jean cracked the cutting board with the force of her mighty fist,” Einbinder recalls, her tone sounding a lot like awe. Smart says that while she had never gutted a fish before, she did have experience shooting a scene, for the Fox show 24, involving high-stakes kiwi chopping in front of her estranged husband. “She’s getting more angry and more angry, and she’s chopping fruit, and it just becomes more and more violent,” Smart says of her 24 character Martha Logan. “And she just takes the fruit knife and sticks it in his neck.”

Smart has a background in theater but rose to prominence with roles on Designing Women and Frasier, and over the years she has amassed many stories about pouring her body into her work. When she was on the CBS program The District, she says, she once shot a scene that involved a criminal pursuit. “DPs always like the streets to be wet,” Smart says. “You notice even car commercials the streets are always, always wet; they just like the way it looks. Stunt people, of course, hate it because it makes their job much more dangerous, which I found out the hard way.” She slipped on a slick painted line, caught herself, then tripped over her long jacket in the process.

“So I kind of rolled over and lay on my back, you know, gasping for air,” she says, “and the stunt coordinator runs over and leans over. He says, ‘Are you OK?’ And he accidentally dropped this giant walkie-talkie right between my eyes. I thought a brick fell off a building.” It is reminiscent of when Ava drops Deborah’s phone on her boss’s sleeping face while trying to activate Face ID as Deborah recovers from plastic surgery.

While filming the recent Mare of Easttown, Smart asked the wardrobe department to sew some extra padding into her clothes. She felt the added weight would suit the character better, but it turned out to also be “a really lucky thing” for scenes in which her character fell out of a chair or tumbled down the stairs. Still, that didn’t stop her from getting injured: After falling over a railing during filming, Smart suffered a concussion and a broken rib, and spent five days in a hospital. “I decided that now I have to just step aside,” Smart says, rather than get hurt again with a stunt—although thus far that new policy has not stopped her from taking those glorious fish cleaver hacks.

At first, the fish was not the plan. Earlier in the production process, a penciled-in story line for the end of the penultimate episode called for some high-stakes slapstick to take place not from behind a kitchen counter, but rather within a body of water. Deborah decapitating a fish with a cleaver while Ava twitches beside her “was, at one point, a scene where Deborah actually offers to teach Ava to swim,” says Aniello. “Because in Episode 4,” adds Downs, “on their phone call at the end, Ava admits that she’s never learned to swim.” And imagine what havoc a vengeful Deborah could wreak with someone like that in the water?

This particular detail was personal, ripped from the reality of Statsky’s own life. “I am 35 and don’t know how to swim, and it doesn’t look like I’m going to learn,” she says.

“I’ve seen you do a little doggy paddle, girl!” interjects Aniello, sounding a lot like Kayla, a supportive, daffy assistant in Hacks played by Megan Stalter.

“I can doggy-paddle,” agrees Statsky, “but if I get put in the ocean, I panic.”

While the showrunners had already started visualizing Deborah letting Ava flounder in the water (“Just a light drowning,” Aniello says, “so she comes up spitting,”), the team ultimately decided to explore other ways to strike the same note. It was a decision that made Smart exhale. “I said, ‘Oh God, I’m so glad you didn’t do this,’” Smart says. “I think it is a good idea. But I said: ‘I think my days of going on screen in a bathing suit are behind me.’”

The first time we glimpse a fish in Hacks, right at the beginning of Episode 3, the slimy lil rainbow trout is flip-flopping rather triumphantly out of a wide white hose and into a man-made pond in otherwise parched Las Vegas, all but slapping climate change in the face while a choir sings gloria in excelsis deo and Deborah looks out over her kingdom and basks in the sun. The next time we see a fish, at the end of that same early episode, it is dangling from the business end of a hook controlled by Deborah, clad in a sharp, late-night fishing vest that looks as though it were on loan from Her Majesty the Queen. (Perello says that, as with the CO2 tank, she only had to show Smart how to use her fishing rod one time before “she just gets it and makes it look like she has always done it.”)


In that scene, Deborah squeezes the fish’s cheeks with practiced care. She removes it from her line and throws it back, one of the two most tender things we will see her do over the course of the season. (The other one involves getting a man to tell a touching story at a funeral about vomit and dress shoes.) “There’s a little moment of vulnerability and kindness that you see there,” Aniello says.

Smart notices and indulges in this sort of attention to detail, right down to the silly recurring gags—like the one about the massive size of Ava’s hands—that crop up again and again throughout the season. On the night that the season finale aired, she says, she was talking to Einbinder about this: “About how lucky as actors we are that they write with such detail,” Smart says, “and sometimes just strange little idiosyncratic things that you wouldn’t normally think of. But for every character, that just makes the show so much more fun to do, and so much more fun to watch.”

Such precision also enables the show to strike a difficult balance familiar to any comedian: between being a romp and being a bummer. The creative team behind Hacks, Einbinder says, “can do this story justice, because they’ve lived it. And so they know, as all comedians know, that this lifestyle is equally as sad as it is funny.” In the scene right before Deborah is shown dismantling a rainbow trout, we get a look into her state of mind when she gets uncommonly honest with a reporter. Some people see stand-up as scary, but not Deborah. “Everyone thinks that stand-up is so scary because you’re up there all alone,” she says, “but it is the least scary thing in the world. Because no one can disappoint you.” She is a rock; she has a kitchen island.

In addition to impressing the prop master, Smart is “a script supervisor’s dream,” Aniello says; she is incredibly precise and consistent in her deliveries and her movements in a way that gives the production team a wealth of material to work with in the editing room. “That is the gift she gives us as an actor, to the show creators,” says Aniello. “There are some less-experienced actors on the set,” she says, “and I think they immediately learn from Jean.”

Hacks is the first major acting role that Einbinder has had, and she calls working with Smart a “master class” and describes her as having “such an overwhelming sense of control over her instrument,” from the trickiest choreography to the tiniest motions and movements. “Especially in that scene where she’s literally making an incision in a fish,” Einbinder says.

But the way Smart sees it, she is getting as good as she gives. She has been in the industry long enough to know that chemistry is a crapshoot, and that sometimes you’re just in luck. Smart says that years after the show Friends initially aired, she started watching it on an airplane and got hooked. “They had that chemistry on day one,” Smart says. “It was really extraordinary. And that’s just luck. I mean, I couldn’t get over that.” She’s sharing this about Friends because it’s the same way she feels about working with Einbinder.

“I just feel so lucky that we found her,” Smart says, “because she’s just a natural, and she’s such an incredible individual too. She’s so funny and kind and so thoughtful and interesting. I just texted her a picture of Kim Kardashian where her hands looked big and said, ‘Who knew? Who knew you had Kardashian hands?’”

In the show, this affection—this amusement, really—is palpable, and it gives Deborah and Ava’s on-again-off-again working and personal partnership a meaningful depth. Deborah’s relationship with Ava isn’t romantic the way it is with Marty (another character with whom she has off-the-charts chemistry) and it isn’t familial, the way it is with her daughter DJ. In a way, it has elements of both: the banter that crackles like flirtation; the confessions that heal like therapy. Which is why it feels so right when the two women are on good terms—hearing Deborah call Ava’s long fingers “positively extraterrestrial” while standing in Ava’s childhood bedroom in a fur coat warms the heart—and hurts to watch when things break down.

“These two women have been taught by the world that they cannot, you know, always bring their full selves to others,” says Einbinder. “They cannot always have that trust that they will be OK and safe if they trust in other people. So they both do that dance.”

At the end of Episode 9, that dance takes place amid dead fish. And over the course of the subsequent season finale, that dance moves from a Vegas dressing room to a funeral to a childhood bedroom to a plane, where the final scene of Episode 10 has a lot in common with the penultimate episode’s conclusion. When Ava, sitting with Deborah on her plane, gets a panicked call from their mutual agent about some gossip Ava leaked about her boss in a moment of grief and intoxication, her expression of pure fear in the finale’s closing seconds is akin to how she looked in the presence of that meat cleaver. “We wanted to put HBO Max in a really tough position,” jokes Aniello about the cliffhanger ending, which was filmed before the Hacks team knew whether the series would be renewed.

Now, Deborah and Ava embark on the road, where Deborah will refine and iterate the bold, intentionally discomfiting material that she developed along with Ava. And already, Ava is harboring a secret. Which means that the two women will likely spend much of Season 2 where we love to see them, even when it pains us: stuck in close quarters, with the air between them salty and the weapons among them sharp.

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