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Comedy Comes With Age in ‘Hacks’ and ‘I Love That for You’

The HBO and Showtime series, respectively, explore the intergenerational bonds between women at the fringes of the entertainment industry

HBO Max/Showtime/Ringer illustration

The entertainment industry is unkind to women, and especially unkind to women as they age. Stated plainly, it’s a banal truism. But the idea is also at the core of two caustic TV comedies, each pairing a performer who confronts the limits and costs of her success with a younger counterpart who struggles to attain some of her own. Remarkably, both involve a home shopping network. Their connection, though, runs deeper than detail: both take place well outside the traditional bounds of Hollywood, and not just geographically. The characters’ physical isolation stands in for a metaphorical kind—one that can’t always be overcome by solidarity, though it may represent their best shot.

In its first season, Hacks pushed its heroine out of her comfort zone; in its second, which premieres this Thursday, she heads further into the unknown. Famed comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) has held court on the Las Vegas Strip for decades, but when her longtime venue threatens to cut some dates, their shared manager recruits disgraced TV writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) to freshen up Deborah’s act. The resulting series won all the establishment clout Deborah herself was denied, scoring Emmys for writing, directing, and Smart’s performance. For Hacks’ follow-up, Deborah and Ava take their act on the road, workshopping new, more confessional material on cruises, at state fairs, and in a tour bus equipped with a state-of-the-art light therapy bed.

Hacks is a sincere story about cynical people, which is a delicate balance to strike without betraying its characters. Once employer and employee built a foundation of mutual respect, Hacks needed a fresh infusion of conflict, lest its bite turn toothless. Anticipating this risk, creators Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello, and Paul W. Downs threw a preemptive fly into Deborah’s anti-aging ointment: a drunken, angry email from Ava to the showrunners of Bitch PM, a new series about “a prime minister … who is a bitch,” detailing her boss’s many flaws and encouraging her readers to use them for inspiration. The email looms over the start of Season 2, a ticking time bomb set to upend a relationship that’s just found its equilibrium.

A time bomb of a different sort powers I Love That for You, the Showtime half-hour comedy starring and cocreated by SNL star Vanessa Bayer. (Bayer partnered up with writer Jeremy Beiler, a 30 Rock colleague who cowrote the modern classic “Wells for Boys.”) Like Bayer, protagonist Joanna Gold had leukemia as a child in Ohio; unlike Bayer, Joanna invents a fake relapse to save her new job as a host at the Special Value Network. Joanna used to watch the HSN analog from her hospital bed, where she convinced her parents to buy a bracelet with “a lobster claw clasp, which is unheard of at this price point.” She’s parroting Jackie Stilton (Molly Shannon), her favorite host.

Joanna’s fib gives I Love That for You an anxious energy familiar to fans of black comedies like Barry. The character is a composite of Bayer’s greatest hits, an all-you-can-eat buffet of neuroses: the fixed grin of Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy; the operatic self-loathing of the brunching girlfriends on I Think You Should Leave; the blabbering nonsense of Dawn Lazarus. (She shares this last trait with Hacks’ Ava, whose frequent logorrhea is exacerbated by her current bind, as well as the reason she’s in it in the first place. Even if she can’t tell Deborah about her lapse in judgment, Ava can and will share her current place on the Bristol stool chart.) But while Joanna’s illness is a fiction, her lifelong passion for SVN in general, and Jackie in particular, is entirely unfeigned.

That earnest admiration means that Jackie and Joanna start in the place that Deborah and Ava arrive at only gradually: warm affection, undercut by a secret that threatens to blow it all up. As we get to know Jackie as a person in her own right, the parallels with Deborah start to compound. When Joanna starts at SVN, her idol is on the verge of her 30th “Jackiversary” at the network, hosting its flagship show Beautiful You from the studio in Orlando. She’s also in the middle of a divorce, plus a contentious debate with her boss over how much of her personal life to share with the audience. “Santa Claus might have issues with Mrs. Claus, but we don’t want to hear about it,” cautions Patricia (Jenifer Lewis), the CEO. “We just want it to be Christmas.”

After scrapping her act and starting from scratch, the question of what to disclose and how also looms over Deborah in Season 2. At Ava’s urging, she’s started to open up about past traumas like her husband leaving her for her younger sister, pushing past stale punch lines and delving into the emotions underneath. But she hasn’t figured out how to shape those emotions into an effective hour of comedy, a challenge that starts to gnaw at her as she workshops on the road. One stalwart fan bluntly calls the new routine a “downer,” forcing Deborah to question whether anyone is even interested in the person behind the stage persona.

Together, the two shows explore what these women provide for their audience, and what they’ve trained that audience to expect from them. Like her real-life inspiration Joan Rivers, Deborah is a tireless worker, taking every gig and endorsement deal she can. One of those many hustles is a show on QVC, a job she’s less passionate about than Jackie, but she still gives her all. Both Hacks and I Love That for You are acutely aware of home shopping as the ugly stepchild of mainstream retail and television alike. It’s a status the shows exploit for comic effect, but also thematic resonance. Neither Jackie nor Deborah is taken seriously by some of their peers. They gain a following by catering to a demographic that feels similarly unseen.

“Marty would always tease me about this place,” Jackie sighs of SVN. “I could always tell he thought my job was so stupid.” But to Jackie, it isn’t, which is why her fans take out their credit cards when she gushes about her new favorite reading light or a particular style of handbag. “They never gave a shit about me in L.A. or New York,” Deborah observes. She isn’t directly referencing QVC, but her role there is of a piece with her larger project of appealing to people outside those two cities, acknowledging them in the way tastemakers haven’t acknowledged her. (She also makes frequent references to her affinity with gay men, a bond rooted in a similar dynamic.) Her tour with Ava takes her from Arizona to Oklahoma to Tennessee, never touching the coasts.

I Love That for You is not as sharp or self-assured as Hacks—a high bar to meet, and a forgivable lapse for a show in its early episodes. Its satire is often soft, and its margins padded with lightweight subplots like Joanna’s flirtation with a PA. Yet Jackie’s story line is an anchor for some of its most compelling material, making optimal use of SVN as a setting. Her friendship with Joanna, too, is a highlight. Bayer and Beiler steer clear of the obvious All About Eve setup; Jackie isn’t threatened by Joanna’s rise, though some other hosts are. Instead, Joanna gets to see Jackie work her magic up close, encouraging her to believe in herself the way she encourages the SVN audience to order their latest tchotchke. And Joanna offers Jackie the sympathetic ear Patricia won’t provide, though she may not be so grateful for long.

As for Hacks, the fallout from Ava’s screwup never dissipates, but it does fade to the background during the season’s middle stretch—which is, not coincidentally, also its strongest. The tension between Ava and Deborah remains, but rather than coming from an email deux ex machina, it’s turned inward to where the show thrives: the work. It’s enough for Deborah and Ava to spend an episode chipping away at a joke about a business manager, or exploring exactly what Deborah had to do to survive in a hostile industry. To Ava, just like Joanna, her new mentor is part role model, part cautionary tale about what a life in the spotlight demands. That’s plenty bittersweet on its own.