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‘Hacks’ delivers what audiences didn’t know they needed: Jean Smart in a starring role

Jean Smart as Deborah Vance in "Hacks." (HBO Max) (Courtesy of HBO Max)
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There are two kinds of comedians, according to HBO’s “Hacks”: old-school stand-ups, the kind that rely on artfully crafted one-liners and ba-dum-chhh punchlines, who roam the stage while they perform; and contemporary, disgustingly cutting-edge performers, who sit on stools ruminating in cadences that just barely sound like jokes. “Hacks” — in which a disgraced young comedy writer winds up working for megasuccessful Las Vegas comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), who’s been cashing in on the same routine for years — hammers home early and often that Deborah sits (or rather, stands and paces) squarely in that first category of comedian. She’s old guard rather than vanguard.

But in last night’s season-finale episode, for virtually the only time all season, Deborah tries out something new. In the final show of her casino residency, glittering in her trademark sequin suit, she walks to center stage. She takes a seat, takes a breath and proceeds to elevate the work she’s been doing for most of her career into something more surprising and ambitious.

The moment the camera zooms in on her face, aglow under an adoring spotlight, it’s hard not to see the Deborah Vance story briefly eclipsing with the Jean Smart story. Since 1979, Smart, 69, has shone in small roles, in supporting roles and as a member of ensemble casts. Just as familiar as her face to anyone who has watched TV or movies in the past 40 years are Smart’s dazzlingly deadpan line readings, her come-hither drawl and her signature sharp cackle. But "Hacks,” which has just been renewed for a second season, is a rarity: It capitalizes on the impressive momentum Smart has created in the last half-decade with an array of ensemble roles as mysterious, disillusioned women (sometimes with a heart of gold, sometimes not) — and it lets one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood, one of its surest bets to wring a stellar performance out of a small or supporting part, seize a true starring turn.

Smart’s reign as the queen of guest and supporting roles began in 1986, when she first appeared on the hit sitcom “Designing Women” as Charlene Frazier, the sweet-natured office manager at the show’s central interior-decorating firm. It was the Atlanta-set series that familiarized audiences with the Washington-born Smart’s convincing Southern purr — which today is instantly recognizable in Smart’s voice role on Netflix’s animated series “Big Mouth,” as the soothing-but-sinister purple cat known as Depression Kitty.

After five seasons, Smart left “Designing Women” and spent the following decade working steadily in supporting film roles and TV movies. In 1995 and 1998, she landed co-starring roles on sitcoms that were each canceled after a single season. Smart later triumphed, though, with back-to-back Emmys in 2000 and 2001 for her recurring guest-star role on “Frasier” as Lana Gardner, Frasier’s high school crush who resurfaces in his adult life as a beautiful divorcée. The performance showcased her dizzying ability to transform from alluring to annoying and back again at breakneck speed, gazing bewitchingly across a pillow at Frasier Crane in one moment and squawking orders over the phone at her teenage sons in the next.

She earned two more nominations in 2006 and 2007 for her portrayal of first lady Martha Logan on “24” (in which she first appeared on-screen seconds before dramatically dunking her face into a sink and delivered what the New York Times called “perhaps the most memorable character debut in ’24′ history”), and won her third statuette in 2008 for her supporting role as the titular amnesiac’s beleaguered mother on the sitcom “Samantha Who?”

The Jean Smart-aissance we’re seeing in 2021, however, began about six years ago, with Smart’s Emmy-nominated supporting turn on FX’s “Fargo” as Midwestern crime boss Floyd Gerhardt. In 2017, she appeared in what would be her first of three seasons as melancholy therapist Melanie Bird on “Legion”; the following year she was a cult-favorite part of the cult-favorite film “A Simple Favor”; and she then became an instant fan favorite on 2019’s “Watchmen” as the mean, sexy superheroine-turned-FBI agent Laurie Blake, at one point acting opposite a giant blue sex toy. Smart described Laurie Blake to The Washington Post at the time as a complicated person “living a very lonely life.”

Smart’s ubiquity hasn’t gone unnoticed, especially this spring when she was briefly appearing on two hit HBO series at the same time. Just ahead of the debut of “Hacks,” Smart delighted audiences with an equally heart-rending and riotously funny performance as the nosy, iPad-addicted Helen Fahey, matriarch of a multigenerational Pennsylvania family in “Mare of Easttown.”

“It’s one of those essential truths of TV … that if you need a tough-as-nails broad, you hire Jean Smart,” wrote Vulture’s Jackson McHenry. “Smart has the voice and the timing to play a stern matriarch, and whenever she’s on-screen in ‘Mare of Easttown,’ she wrenches away the spotlight like she’s grabbing a juice box.”

If the last five years or so allowed Smart to showcase how well she can play warm, cold and hot, Deborah Vance on “Hacks” is the role that brought it all together. Deborah is, in alternating turns, as tough and casually callous as Floyd Gerhardt, as beguiling as Laurie Blake, and — in the last few minutes of the season — as gruffly tender as Helen Fahey and as charming as Charlene Frazier.

“Jean signing on to ‘Hacks’ was essentially the creative equivalent of being given a limitless production budget,” show creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky wrote in a statement to The Post. “Jean’s range is endless, which meant the possibilities for what we could write for Deborah were endless. She is so incredibly gifted in both her comedic and dramatic acting that there was no joke we could write that she couldn’t land perfectly, nor was there an emotional moment she couldn’t make incredibly grounded and affecting."

In the final few moments of the “Hacks” finale — after an exchange in which Smart gamely demonstrates how to cry without moving one’s forehead (!!!) — Deborah confides to her young staffer, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), that at the last show of her residency, her new material fell flat. For the first time in Deborah’s career, her audience left the show feeling bewildered rather than enchanted. “I bombed,” she says simply. “A few things worked, but … I mostly bombed.”

Even if Deborah’s big gamble doesn’t pay off, though, Smart’s has. Jean Smart, by contrast, is absolutely killing.

Read more:

‘Mare of Easttown’ ended with a shocking twist. But that’s not the only reason the show was a hit.

‘Watchmen’ actress Jean Smart on how Laurie has (and hasn’t) changed since her Silk Spectre days