TV

Welcome To The Goddamn Summer Of Jean Smart

The temptation here is to open with some elaborate and flowery introduction. Just a whole paragraph about the passage of time and building a career and long overdue recognition finally coming, complete with metaphors and fancy descriptors and all of it. Some real writerly bullcrap. But this is an article about Jean Smart and I feel like Jean Smart would hate that. Let’s skip it entirely. Let’s get right to the point. Welcome to the goddamn summer of Jean Smart.

You know Jean Smart. Everyone knows Jean Smart. She’s now in her fifth decade as a fixture in the television landscape. She was on Designing Women in the 1980s. She was on Frasier in the 1990s. She was on 24 in the 2000s. She played the Governor of Hawaii on CBS’s Hawaii Five-0 reboot. She’s kind of — and I must stress here that I mean this as a compliment, mostly because I do not want Jean Smart to yell at me — the Forrest Gump of television, popping up throughout its history at notable moments, crisscrossing across genres and styles, adding a little dash of something special to everything she was in.

The problem was that people only ever called on her to be that dash, the seasoning on the main course, never the entree. She discussed this recently in a profile in the New York Times. It’s all quite infuriating to think about, especially given what we know now (more on this in a second), but this quote especially is enough to drive you up a tree.

“I was always kind of part character actress, part leading lady, and they didn’t know quite where to put me sometimes,” she said. Sometimes that hurt.

“For actors, I think the most painful thing is knowing how much you have to offer and never being given the opportunity to do it,” she said.

That stinks! We should have done more to remedy this situation. Yes, I’m including you and me in this round of blame even though most of us are not casting directors or showrunners and did not have much power to address it directly. There was probably something we could have done, even if it was something small. We could have knocked on doors. We could have put up fliers. Anything. Who knows, maybe one of us would have unknowingly set in motion a chain of events that changed history. A butterfly flaps its wings and Jean Smart wins an Oscar for Best Actress.

Luckily, eventually, the universe started correcting itself without our help. Noah Hawley cast Jean Smart in Fargo and Legion in meaty roles that, even if they were not lead roles, were at the very least lead-adjacent. Damon Lindelof cast her in Watchmen and let her be a little silly in a show that mixed silly and serious remarkably well. She got to voice a character named Depression Kitty on Big Mouth and, buddy, if you think Jean Smart can’t voice a giant imaginary cat who has a southern drawl and wants children to be sad, you have a whole bunch of other things coming.

All of this represented progress, to some degree. The roles were all juicy and fun if not substantial. The projects were all run by the kind of tastemaking creators who have the quote-unquote right kind of audience. And sometimes, I suppose, this is how things happen, slow and deliberate and piece-by-piece and then suddenly AllAtOnceVeryFast. I do not know how else to explain Jean Smart starring in two huge HBO shows at the same time and the world finally all waking up and noticing together.

This brings us to the present. Jean Smart is currently starring in both Mare of Easttown and Hacks. The shows and roles appear almost opposite on their face. In Mare of Easttown, she plays Helen, a Pennsylvania mother and great-grandmother who lives in a small community and has lived there her entire life and will probably die there. She shares a house with multiple generations of her family and drinks Manhattans at night and she always has a snappy comment about whatever is happening. In Hacks, she plays a fabulously wealthy aging comic who lives alone in a giant mansion outside Las Vegas and eventually hires a scrappy young fabulously unwealthy comic to help punch up her tired routine. One wears muted housecoats and sweaters, the other wears loud rhinestones and technicolor blouses. These two women lived very different lives.

But dig a little deeper and you might see a common theme. Both of them are a little prickly. Neither of them take a single ounce of guff from anyone. Watch both shows back-to-back and you can start to see that Deborah is kind of a version of Helen who had dreams that catapulted her out of Pennsylvania, and Helen is a kind of version of Deborah who valued family over career. There’s a through-line that connects the characters, that adds depth and heart and a tough exterior that protects a mushy center. That’s the Jean Smart magic right there.

HBO

It’s not nothing either, to be pulling this off so well. Sometimes stacking projects on top of each other like this can reveal an actor’s limited range. You can start to see the seams in their performance, the tics and crutches they return to in a performance. This can work when the actor is a walking charisma bomb (Paul Rudd kind of plays Paul Rudd in most of his projects and no one anywhere has ever complained about it, nor should they), but it can get really tricky when someone is shooting for nuance in characters who are flip sides of the same coin, as I just posited Helen and Deborah are.

And yet, again, magic. Watch her bring a little levity to Mare of Easttown, a bleak murder drama where all the characters are miserable and gray clouds fill the sky every day. Watch her bring some gravitas to Hacks, a fun comedy where the colors are occasionally saturated within an inch of their lives. She’s providing balance to two high-profile shows at the same time from opposite ends of the scale. Do you understand? Do you really get what’s happening here? None of this is easy! The fact that she’s making it look this easy — that a lot of us are just ho-humming it — is incredible! We should be talking about it every day!

In a way, though, I suppose this is kind of Jean Smart’s fault. All those years of supporting roles, the multiple decades of popping up in shows we watch and making each of them a little better, might have lulled us into complacency. We’ve just become conditioned to it all, to seeing Jean Smart be competent and brassy and tough and vulnerable on our television screens, to the point that we expect it now. We didn’t even realize it was happening. Our tolerance built so slowly over such a long period of time. But here we are.

So, with that in mind, let’s all agree to do something this weekend. Let’s flip on Mare of Easttown and/or Hacks and try to come at them with fresh eyes. Let’s watch Jean Smart work like it’s the first time we’ve seen it. And when we see her do something cool, when we see her ground a flight of fancy or release her patented cackle to brighten up a grim endeavor, let’s all stop for a second and appreciate it. Allow it to sink in. There’s never been a better time. It is, after all, the goddamn summer of Jean Smart.

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