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REVIEW: Jean Smart moves to the top of the class with 'Hacks'
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REVIEW: Jean Smart moves to the top of the class with 'Hacks'

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We are in the prime of Miss Jean Smart.

Thanks to her work in “Mare of Easttown” and now, “Hacks,” she’s one of the best in the business.

Subtlety and range shine through in both. But “Hacks” is her master class – a series that showcases just how much she can add to anyone’s work.

Playing a veteran comedian (with a long-running residency at a Las Vegas hotel), she’s hardly an embraceable star. She’s a survivor who has outlasted competitors, managers and at least one husband. She’s not exactly on good terms with her daughter (Kaitlin Olson), either, but she knows there are sharks nipping at her designer heels.

Because the hotel owner wants to cut back on her contract – and bring in Pentatonix, no less – she realizes change is inevitable. But she won’t give up with a fight.

So, Smart’s Deborah Vance – the woman accused of torching a house – adds fuel to the fire by hiring a young writer (Hannah Einbinder) who supposedly can help her gain a younger audience.

Created by Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky, “Hacks” nicely fills the void left by “VEEP.” It, too, is acerbic and on point. But, here, we get to see what really goes into the lines that make other people laugh.

Deborah is a tough, tough cookie. She snaps at her oh-so-good manager (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), bullies the staff and squares off with the hotel owner (Christopher McDonald) who easily can be beaten at his own game.

Think Joan Rivers, Lucille Ball and Debbie Reynolds and you get an idea what makes groundbreakers like her succeed.

Little moments (when, for example, she changes the tank on an in-home soft drink dispenser without stopping a conversation) add up. But it’s her interplay with Einbinder (as Ava, her new “writer”) that reveals plenty about the generation gap and why one doesn’t want to concede to the other.

Told to digitize Vance’s archives, Ava discovers a woman she didn’t know and uses the knowledge to find a way in. Halfway through the 10-episode first season (may there be many, many more), it’s clear how each can learn from the other.

Einbinder dismisses her boomer in surprising ways. And Smart comes right back with a look that could bury weaker souls.

When she has to, Vance turns on the charm. Besides the nightly show, she has a QVC line and a string of endorsements that suggest she’s not above cutting a ribbon if it means she’s still in the game. She also can grovel if it means she’s going to get somewhere.

That she still cares about the trappings (and the ability to buy a pepper shaker) is largely what makes her interesting. Smart plays the game and entices you to join it, too.

While “Hacks” may be a harsh title for something this deliciously good, it captures the price some are willing to pay for celebrity. Brands may change but desire doesn’t.

“Hacks” airs on HBO Max.

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