‘Hacks’ Proves That The Comedy Generation Gap Isn’t Insurmountable

The appeal of “nice” comedy was obvious during the last 15 months or so of angst and isolation. Stuck in our homes, we clung to new classic comfort food like The Office and Parks And Rec while bringing The Good Place, Superstore, and Schitt’s Creek in for gentle landings and discovering the charms of Ted Lasso’s optimism.

With all of these shows, characters led with heart and soul while navigating the awkward yet largely benign bits of life and work. They reflected a better time with better people living a version of normal — with empathy and consideration — that we wanted to sit with. No one was aggressively mean to each other or willing to stab supposed friends in the back. Not like on Seinfeld, Arrested Development, Curb, and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, shows that are hilarious, iconic, and which also got their share of rewatches, but which didn’t offer as much emotional nourishment.

Success begets success, and so we’ve seen new shows come in with an eye on echoing the tone of things that have been working. Rutherford Falls, as an example, draws inspiration from a lot of those shows (some more than others). Is it funny? Not really, but everyone seems pleasant and there are worse ways to spend a five-hour binge.

There is a third option, though, shows where the characters can be occasional assholes while still showing pops of humanity and growth. A type of show that might be a better fit for these times, because a lot of assholes need to show pops of humanity and growth.

Broad City was a show like that. The Other Two seems like it’s aiming to be that kind of show. Ditto Girls5Eva (which is so smart, so funny, and so worth your time). Mythic Quest absolutely is that kind of show. And so too is Hacks, a new series (which is now available to stream on HBO Max) that somehow manages to find common ground and heart despite a generational chasm between two neurotic main characters who are often awful at being people and worse at being kind to each other.

Created by Broad City alums Lucia Aniello, Paul Downs, and Jen Statsky, Hacks has Jean Smart playing Deborah Vance, an absolute diva and stand-up comedy icon whose career is sputtering. Enter Hannah Einbinder, who plays Ava, a young comedy writer whose plan for ascension is blocked by a mean tweet that got her sort of canceled and a personality that isn’t helping matters.

When we’re introduced to her, Deborah is more brand than person, something that takes careful planning, hard work, and slavish repetition — a behind-the-curtain hustle that is shown in great detail. It’s the kind of life that makes someone allergic to revealing their vulnerable side or slowing down. And Hacks does such a good job of exploring what that means for a person as Deborah is confronted by the reality of where she is in her career and the presence of Ava. Despite that praise, it might be how the show portrays Ava that’s most noteworthy.

I’ll use the SNL Gen Z hospital sketch from the Elon Musk episode as a contrast. The joke there is that Gen Z kids communicate differently, making it hard for people not of that generation to understand. Now, perhaps the point is to dunk on people who throw their hands up and don’t try to understand anyone under 30, but it comes off like a slam on “these kids today.” And that’s an easy trap to fall down and one that I thought might ensnare Hacks with Ava, who isn’t explicitly Gen Z, but who is likely close enough to that age range (I think it tops out at 24).

Clearly, the writers here (the creators are in their mid-30s) want to say something profound about Ava and someone who is ambitious and needs to believe they have it all figured out (even when they don’t) while in their 20s. But there’s added dimension to Ava with clearly more to come. She isn’t a collection of catchphrases and cliches about being in your 20s made for an audience that’s not.

How Deborah and Ava connect is the most profound part of the show at this stage because it speaks to a gap that is supposedly insurmountable. Because it’s easier to shrug and think that people only move in separate lanes, one for those 35 and older who are hurdling toward the societal death of pop culture irrelevance and the other for those younger who are on a much longer (much more fun) road to the same place when they too get usurped by whatever comes next in a decade or so. Easier to forget the ties that bind.

I’m in my 30s and I’ve retained far too much about shows and movies that other people rightly brand as forgettable. Occasionally, I’ll talk with friends who are a few years younger and who are fortunate enough to have not been raised totally by television or who are blessed to be able to purge the very purge-worthy minutia of pop culture (because not everything needs to stick to the wall). With these people, I will reference things from the before times of the ‘90s and ‘80s, registering a blank. And while it can momentarily flash as something worth getting exasperated with, context matters.

We are in a moment right now where there is an endless ocean of content. And the waters are rising. Every day, with approximately 900 streaming channels and content studios churning out new things for us to watch and obsess over. With this, it is impossible to absorb it all but necessary to absorb a lot of it. Because it’s all so good and all so relevant to the pop culture conversation that helps to connect us.

When I was a teenager, this was not the case. Fewer channels meant less content. And so I drifted to the past and consumed a diet of reruns that aren’t as in people’s faces now with algorithms recirculating the things like the things we just watched. How could we possibly expect someone to know about super obscure things from long ago if those things are made to be needles in a haystack?

Listen, it’s cold out there when people don’t click with your obscure tastes. You feel weird for hanging onto specific memories of Duckman, Kids In The Hall, or old Conan sketches, but it’s natural. Nobody is the asshole in the pop culture generation wars. Just don’t be totally dug in against the idea of experiencing the refreshing new things (which are so vibrant, deep, unique, and representative of a wider world) or the foundational old things. And don’t buy into the forces that say we have to be divided with our interests and restricted to what’s assigned to our designated labels.

This is why it was so weird to see people freak out over that Scorsese thing when he was talking about the value of curation (among other things). People shouldn’t be afraid of smart people saying “hey, this new thing improves on an old idea” or “this old thing is cool and it influenced this new thing.” And I would hope people wouldn’t feel condescended to by what is meant to be a helpful act. When it’s meant that way and people aren’t confusing an invitation to a party with the deed to the whole house, painting everything they love as important or relevant or better than. As with all things, balance. The goal is to find the cool shit.

Anyway, that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong and I didn’t mean to go off on a rant here… which is a reference to an obscure ’90s thing that nobody should feel obligated to know about. The point to all of this is Hacks is the rare thing that is trying to build a bridge between generations. Deborah will gradually learn to appreciate Ava’s unique perspective and Ava will learn how groundbreaking Deborah was and what she had to sacrifice to get where she is. All that is informing these characters and driving this show toward a place where it can live in that third TV comedy bucket where it’s neither dripping in sentiment or acid. To be sure, this is a funny and complicated story about assholes gradually becoming smaller assholes and better friends. A story about grudging connection and making fun of things together instead of apart. It’s a story for these specific times and a broad audience.

The first two episodes of ‘Hacks’ can be streamed on HBO Max with additional episodes dropping on Thursdays.