The premise of HBO’s smart hit comedy “Hacks,” just finished with its first season and renewed for a second, is that a played-out older Las Vegas comedian, Deborah Vance, ends up paired with a canceled and unemployable Gen Z comic, who is meant to help her write new material. Both of them view the association as beneath them. Deborah has always written her own material. Ava, who shows up for the job without even researching her new employer’s work, smarts under the perception that Deborah doesn’t regard her as very talented.
When, in the second episode, a flat tire leaves them stranded in the desert, Ava begins to complain that Deborah is making the job unnecessarily hard, even though Ava is “good.” Deborah, regally outfitted in a flowing robe and parasol, responds coldly. “Good is the minimum,” she says. “It’s the baseline. You have to be so much more than good.” Even if you’re great, she says — and even if you’re lucky — you still have to work, and hard, “and even that is not enough.” Deborah doesn’t respect her new employee because Ava has done nothing to earn that respect and has in fact done much to discourage it. She then abandons Ava in the desert.
Deborah may be a highhanded, abusive boss, but she is also right. Watching this show, though, you sometimes wonder if it believes her. Like most shows about creative endeavors, “Hacks” commits to the idea that its characters are hustlers: Deborah, in particular, is ruthless when it comes to keeping her Vegas time slots. But one thing that is rarely on the table in shows like this is real failure. (Deborah might lose her slots, and Ava her job, but we’ve seen enough of these stories to suspect those would only be stages on the way to their eventual success.) And despite Deborah’s speech, one thing we rarely see her and Ava do is actual work, hard or otherwise. They bounce jokes off each other, briefly, in the first episode, and Ava pitches Deborah a few times. We see Deborah’s standup, but aren’t offered much insight into her process. We barely see Ava’s work at all. These women are in comedy, but for all it matters to the show, they might as well be in car sales. At least in a show about a dealership, you would see them sell some cars.
Taking failure off the table, rarely depicting creative work — these are linked choices, and in making them, “Hacks” is hardly alone. Even outside the realm of TV and film, you find things like Sally Rooney’s novel “Conversations With Friends,” about a poet whose poetry never appears in the book; everybody says she’s great, and we’re left to imagine why. You wouldn’t watch “Rocky” and expect to see neither training nor boxing, but in stories about artists, it’s typical to relocate all the struggle, all the drama, into the protagonists’ personal lives. They are blocked creatively because they are blocked personally. Or they are fine creatively, but personal conflict erupts right before the big show and pours out in their performance. The work, the talent, is a given. The story is elsewhere.