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A Hack That Only a Mother Could Love

‘Hacks’ is a series that toggles between comedy and tragedy, between forgiving and forgetting, and between loving and leaving—which makes it the perfect canvas to be a show about parenting. Jean Smart, Hannah Einbinder, and the series’ creators explain how those complex dynamics played out over Season 2.

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A cutthroat comedian, a Vegas blackjack dealer, a canceled writer, and a high-strung widow are all standing outside a nightlife venue in Memphis when it becomes obvious that one of them is not like the others. If that sounds like the setup to a joke, in some ways it is: It’s the setting of one of last week’s episodes of the HBO Max comedy series Hacks.

The comedienne is Deborah Vance, played by Jean Smart as a legendary but languishing performer trying to regain momentum via a low-budget, experimental cross-country tour. The card dealer is Kiki, Deborah’s bubbly and no-holds-barred good-luck charm, played by Poppy Liu. The canceled writer is Hannah Einbinder’s sardonic and habitually line-stepping Ava, the co-writer of Deborah’s new show. And the widow, played by Jane Adams, is Ava’s mom Nina, who in her daughter’s eyes is clearly the interloper in the situation, having just materialized unannounced, from over a thousand miles away, at one of the stops on Deborah’s grueling tour.

“Let’s go out!” Nina chirps as her daughter cringes. “Woo-hoo! Girls night out!”

Ava rolls her eyes: “Yeah, that’s what girls night out is,” she says. “Just two friends, someone’s mom, and their boss.” Ava thinks she has just delivered a zinger, except she has, in that moment, failed a basic skill of comedy instead. They may be standing outside, but she has not read the room.

“I’m someone’s mom too, actually,” sniffs Deborah, who has a wayward adult daughter named DJ (Deborah Junior). “So am I,” chirps Kiki, who has a headstrong toddler named Luna. Nina looks vindicated; Deborah has a shit-eating grin.

“Ava very much is, like, othering them,” Hacks co-creator, writer, and director Lucia Aniello tells me in a Zoom conversation last month. “But they’re like, ‘You’re the other, actually.’ They’re all looking at Ava like, ‘You’re the petulant teen among all of us right now, actually.’”

Hacks is a series that toggles between comedy and tragedy, between forgiving and forgetting, between loving and leaving. Its plot points tug on every tension that exists between creativity and memory and truth. Which all makes it the perfect canvas to be a show about parenting—a role that encompasses all of the above—and about the privileges and expectations of being some random human’s kid, and about how hard it can be to say what you feel to the people who love you the most.

“It’s nice to be with people who actually want to be around me,” announces Kiki near the end of Season 1 during a birthday party for DJ, played by Kaitlin Olson, “and not just suck on my titties then turn on me.” She is talking about dear little Luna, who had recently piped up that Luna no love Mama, sending Kiki reeling.

“You’ve only met like, three people in your life,” she rants to the other dinner guests about her daughter, despairing at the memory, “and you hate the best one?!” (Liu, who plays Kiki, has worked as a doula in real life. “It feels like she just knows how to be a cool mom, you know?” says Aniello. “Like, it’s very organic to her.”) But Kiki’s beef with her baby girl is nothing compared to the blow-up that takes place at the birthday dinner between Deborah and DJ that results in the bride-to-be storming out.

Deborah and DJ have long had a strained relationship; “Moms are the worst,” DJ vents to Ava midway through Season 1 as they attempt to hawk her gaudy jewelry line, D’Jewelry, which Deborah has untruthfully promised to show to her home shopping network execs. “My trauma started when she dragged me out on the road with her,” DJ says. “I mean, I was a kid! I wanted to go to school, you know, and just be normal. Instead, I’m 13 years old doing my first line of coke in the Chuckle Hut in Kalamazoo.” Over two seasons of Hacks, which wrapped up its second finale Thursday night, Deborah and DJ have bickered over pill bottles, prenups, D’Jewelry, IVF, and the act of opening cabinets. One of the first lines in the second season’s opening episode is DJ telling her mother: “Don’t psychoanalyze my pot pie!”

Jean Smart and Kaitlin Olsen
Photo by Karen Ballard/HBO Max

“I love working with Kaitlin,” says Smart in a Zoom conversation. “She’s so wonderful, and she’s so, so good. It’s just that DJ, unfortunately, is that reminder constantly in Deborah’s life of where Deborah failed. And that’s very hard for Deborah to accept that she failed.” To Deborah, taking DJ on the road was an act of love; she didn’t want to be away from her daughter. “And of course her child doesn’t see it that way at all,” Smart says. “So as a parent, it’s a horrible reminder to always feel like you never get it right. You never get it right, you never get it right.”

And then there is Ava, who also associates her upbringing with a certain sense of disarray. Her mother gets tangled in phone cords; she makes hysterical phone calls to distant cousins; she stalks her daughter a dozen states away. (Her daughter, meanwhile, never calls.) “Nina is so vivid,” says Einbinder over Zoom about her character’s mother. “She’s so chaotic and anxiety-provoking and hilarious in a way that is only funny when you are not related to, or in any way responsible for, her.” Ava was, so she fled to the farthest place from her hometown of Boston as she could without crossing an ocean: L.A. “She kind of parented herself,” says Einbinder. “Which kind of explains why she’s not altogether the most, you know, perfect human being. Ava’s got some baggage and some ethical and emotional shit to work through.”

At the bar during Moms Night Out Plus Ava, Kiki asks Nina about being the mom of an only child. Nina remembers things brightly: “She turned out great,” she says, “but only because I worked very hard to make sure she was never lonely.”

“Actually,” Ava says, “I was so lonely I used to draw faces on our pillows and talk to them.” Nina admits that maybe she did ruin a lot of pillows, but that it gave her a sense of humor. “Oh, I don’t think Luna’s gonna be funny,” says Kiki, sounding relieved. “She’s really comfortable with herself.”

Throughout Hacks, the relationship between Deborah and Ava has been pretty fraught, too, involving lies, backstabbings, and lawsuits. But what differentiates these two women as a pair is how dynamically they relate to one another: Rather than constantly falling back into the same rutted old patterns, the way the mother-daughter pairings in the show tend to do, Deborah and Ava are constantly repositioning the way they relate. When Deborah teaches Ava how to shop for the right sunglasses for her bone structure, or forces her to buy an out-of-character Chanel-looking dress not for her sake but for the mercy of “the rest of us,” or steps up with an improvised eulogy at Ava’s father’s funeral, it feels maternal.

“I think they’re kind of working out those other relationships with each other, you know?” says Smart. “She’s trading one crazy mother for another crazy mother, and I’m trading one screwed-up daughter for another … sorta screwed-up daughter.”

But sometimes it’s Deborah who winds up playing the petulant teen. On a disastrous cruise ship jaunt, the roles are reversed when Ava tries to get her elder to go get some fresh air and be social. As a sulky Deborah hides in their room with a book like she’s a teen on White Lotus, Ava is abuzz with nerdy details about the famous Olympic athletes on board. “Get out of the house! Look up!” says Hacks co-creator and actor Paul W. Downs on Zoom, riffing on a parent shooing their children away from those dang video games and into the world. “Ava does mother Deborah in a lot of ways.”

Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder
Photo by Karen Ballard/HBO Max

In the Season 2 finale, when Ava makes it back to Las Vegas just in time for the taping of Deborah’s network special, Deborah smiles and relaxes like a kid who just spotted their parents in the stands at the big championship game. “We talked a lot about how you never want either one of them to always be right and the other to always be wrong,” says co-creator Jen Statsky. “It’s a constant shifting balance.” There are also times where it’s difficult to parse who is nurturing or rejecting whom.

Near the end of the Season 2 finale, at a glitzy launch party for the comedy special, Deborah turns abruptly cold toward Ava, telling her she won’t be needing her anymore. Ava’s first reaction is to assume Deborah is employing a defense mechanism; that maybe Deborah is pushing her away because she had become too close, like an adolescent lashing out for love. But Deborah sees it differently, or so she says. She wants Ava to use her comedic talents in service to Ava, not Deborah, to spread her wings and catch the jetstream that won’t be around forever. And to do that, she has to push her out of the nest, a parental tale as old as time.

It isn’t just mother-daughter relationships, or proxies thereof, that Hacks swoops in to peck at. Jimmy, played by Downs, has an assistant, Kayla, who is a disarmingly blithe nepo-baby who decides to disobey her doting, firm-owning “papa” the best way she knows how: Not only does she demonstratively flounce out of the family firm, she also declares she will not be joining papa in Aspen. As for Jimmy himself, one of the most relatable moments in a series full of them is a scene early in Season 2 when he dials up his own widowed mother during the absolute zenith of his terrible, horrible, no-good-very-bad day.

“Hey mom,” he says when she picks up, his voice cracking, his eyes pooling. “Um … I’m having a bad day.” We can’t hear what she says on the other end, but we can imagine the tone: mama-bear alarm; loving concern; a woman instantly and intrusively en garde on behalf of her beautiful boy. Jimmy bristles; haven’t we all? “No, Mom,” he says, straightening up. “No, I don’t really want to talk about it.” Haven’t we all suddenly not?

Meg Stalter and Paul W. Downs

Marcus, Deborah’s lovelorn workaholic assistant, only wishes he could so deftly dodge his mother Robin’s attention. Instead, she is constantly loitering at his place—“says the boy who squatted in my uterus for 10 months?” she replies when he asks her to leave—with her formidable sidekick, Miss Loretta. (“Don’t say ‘Marcus’ in unison!” protests Marcus at one point when he is doubly admonished for blocking his ex-boyfriend’s number.) The women eat Marcus’s food and play with his new puppy and try not to ask too many questions about why he suddenly got a new puppy or has recently been arriving home even later than dawn. At one point, as the camera lingers on Angela Elayne Gibbs, she seems to register that her grown son is kinda spiraling, but she also appears to decide that it’s not her place—or maybe it’s just not her desire—to pry much further into what’s going on.

“There is this space,” says Gibbs in a phone conversation, “where there could be more communication and vulnerability. But it’s not there. And that’s real life!” With some of her own family members, “we love each other, but we stay on the surface,” she says. “You realize we gotta talk about the trees and how pretty the flowers are, and we can’t get down to the roots.”

Some of Hacks’ most affecting work takes place when it dwells within these moments of withholding, whether they are current parental decisions or past filial regrets. In Episode 3 of the second season, Ava admits to Deborah that her late father loved basketball and always used to try to get her to watch it with him. “But I usually said no because I don’t really care about sports and also the sound of the sneakers squeaking on the floor really bothers me,” Ava says, pausing to imitate the screech. “So I never really watched with him, which was dumb. Should have just given him like two fսcking hours of my day.”

This is a devastating admission, and a sadly common lament. But it also turns out to be an engine for personal growth. A few episodes later, when Ava’s mom makes that surprise visit to Memphis, Nina is a whirling dervish of all sorts of motherly annoyances: oversharing, dabbling in multi-level marketing, drunkenly (and unsuccessfully) bugging her daughter to put on Pretty Woman at night, and switching off Ava’s brunch alarm in the morning because she felt her daughter “looked tired.” Ava is irritated, but you can also see on her face that she still wants to make an effort; that she wishes to allocate those two hours of her day this time around. And so she suggests Pretty Woman. Nina can’t contain her excitement. For once, they bond. It is a simple gesture from Ava, but that doesn’t mean it was an easy one to make.

“I think so much angst with a parental figure,” Statsky says over Zoom, “is like this desire for the relationship to be perfect and to say the things you need to say and get everything right. And I think as you get older—and this is something that is depicted in the show—you’re saying, like, ‘If I just put on Pretty Woman, I can give them that.

“As someone who has lost a parent,” she continues, “it’s like when you look back you go, Oh, that would have been so easy for me to give that. And I didn’t and I wish I had. And that’s like so much about being a parent. And I think also being a child of a parent is realizing that those little things—that sitting down on the bed to watch Pretty Woman—could mean so much. And it’s like you have to fight your instinct to say, I need to make this perfect.”

By the time Statsky finishes saying this, Downs is wiping away a few tears in a neighboring Zoom window. “A little emo, guys, a little emo,” he says. “I’m only getting emotional because of lack of sleep.” It was only seven weeks earlier, while everyone was still putting the finishing touches on this season of Hacks, that Downs and Aniello welcomed their own first child.

In March, when Smart received the Critics Choice Award for her performance as Deborah, she dedicated the award to the family of three. “Friday morning, our director Lucia went into labor, so we were kind of making do,” she said in her speech. “She was literally at home on her computer, getting the feed, directing us between contractions. I kid you not, this woman is my idol.”

According to the showrunners, the scene they were working on—in which a roomful of characters meet in Deborah’s “side mansion” in Episode 7 to try to solve a growing pile of big problems—was made even more hectic by the fact that Downs was slated to be directing and acting that day. “I woke up and [Lucia] was like, ‘So, I have been having contractions since 2 a.m.,’” Downs says. “And I’m like, oh nooo. And she’s like, ‘I really want you to go in today.’”

“As a producer,” Aniello explains, “I knew how terrible it would be if he wasn’t able to go that day.”

“And knowing how long labor can be,” adds Downs, “and how often it’s like, a false start … she was like, ‘Go!’ It was not a false start.”

“I knew it wasn’t a false start,” says Aniello. “But I knew I could hold it off.”

“You can see me not acting in the scene, because I am supposed to be in duress, and I was,” Downs says.

“Creatively,” Statsky pipes up, “It worked great!”

Creatively, it worked great. Deborah could say the same thing about her new network special, the one built on the material she worked on with Ava. Deborah’s new act is self-deprecating but not apologetic; unfiltered but still smooth, radically honest but still self-serving. It is an admission that she is often a bad person but never quite an admission of guilt. It also involves a whoooole lot of DJ, and not in a flattering way. “I missed my daughter’s first steps,” she tells the audience. “But I made it up to her. I was the reason she did 12 more!” On the subject of nursing or formula feeding, she mused: “Do I want to bond with my baby, or do I want to keep my perfect breasts? So I turned to my husband and I said, ‘Go to the grocery store.’”

Compared with Season 1, Deborah had seemed to be making a major effort with her daughter at the start of Season 2. She isn’t always perfect, far from it—she manages to upset DJ when her daughter tries to bring up IVF—but she’s trying. “We drew from like, Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher,” says Downs. “We were really interested in what it’s like to be a mother—especially for Deborah Vance, who is a single working mother—who does have a public persona, and who really tries, even though she has this career, which is her first-born in a way.” In Season 2, Deborah sometimes visibly swallows her opinions; she gives DJ and her MMA-fighter fiancé Aidan the keys to her pad; she tolerates it, barely, when Aidan earnestly calls her “mom.” (“He’s from Ohio!” DJ says, by way of explanation.)

But Deborah Vance is forever a performer, which means that sometimes she’s one hell of an art monster, too. “It’s interesting because she has regrets and she also doesn’t have regrets, and I think to me, that’s the most real thing,” says Aniello. “I think Deborah honestly wishes DJ was different, and not necessarily that Deborah was different.” In the finale, her daughter approaches her, wounded but trying not to show it, and asks why her mom can tell hundreds of randos things about their family that she won’t say to DJ’s face.

“I don’t know why it’s always been easier for me to tell things to strangers,” Deborah says, although deep down she does know: Last season, she explained that stand-up is never scary because when you’re up on stage, no one can disappoint you. “Well, therapy’s just talking to one stranger in private,” presses DJ. “Well, my insurance doesn’t cover it,” Deborah says. DJ says that it was one thing to have a bad mother, but it was a harder pill to swallow that “you did try to be a good parent, and you still fucked it up … I’m kind of scared that I’m going to, too.” She will, Deborah assures her, because it’s impossible not to. Then she shows her a surprise: She wore a D’Jewelry bracelet in the TV special.

DJ can’t contain her excitement; this is her version of watching Pretty Woman. Nor can Deborah, a little uncomfortable with the show of loving enthusiasm, following up with one more remark: “It turned my wrist black,” she says, as motherly as anyone ever was.

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