Golden Words — Hacks, “There Is No Line”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

Pilots are rarely the strongest episodes of a series. There’s so much heavy lifting required in the storytelling, character dynamics inevitably haven’t been developed enough to extract the proper nuance — nor comedy or drama, for that matter — and the writers likely haven’t figured out how to best exploit the actors’ strengths. On the other side of the seesaw, the writing on a pilot episode can be especially satisfying if accomplishes the daunting set of tasks with aplomb. Still, I’ll put forth that a television comedy’s pilot script is unlikely to be the true pinnacle of television writing in any given year (admittedly without doing the sort of dedicated study that could back me up in my conclusion), so it’s probably fair to suppose that an Emmy win for such an episode is usually a de facto nod to an entire season’s worth of effort. I feel especially confident that’s the case with “There Is No Line,” the pilot episode of Hacks that put Emmys on the respective shelves of series co-creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky.

Don’t get me wrong; “There Is No Line” is a perfectly fine episode of TV, and it handles the premise-establishing mechanics of a pilot better than most. Critically, it deftly introduces the show’s main characters, veteran comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and smart-aleck upstart Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder), and establishes the dynamics of their newly formed relationship. Both characters hit career stumbles — Deborah loses her longtime cushy weekend gig at a Las Vegas hotel and Ava is on the showbiz shit list for an offensive tweet — so the agent they have in common, Jimmy (played by Downs), puts them together with the flop-sweat hope that the influences will be mutually beneficial. Deborah could use a dose of relevancy that a younger writer might provide, and Ava is definitely in need of some guidance in operating more professionally.

Most of the interactions play out precisely as expected in the episode. Both Deborah and Ava are resentful of the unwanted odd-couple collaboration, so they sulk separately and then snipe at each other mercilessly when brought together. The real inspiration in the script — indeed the very element that forecasts the strengthening of Hacks as it progressed — comes at the end, when the working relationship between Deborah and Ava appears to be over before it really begins. After Ava leaves the meeting, certain there’s no job to be had, Deborah follows her out, compelled to discuss the joke that got Ava in trouble in the first place. Specifically, Deborah is unimpressed by the gag, so she can’t help but engage in some impromptu workshopping with Ava to strengthen the material. It’s that connection made in creating comedy, hammering at the language in a line until it’s strategically honed to get a laugh, that sets the relationship. If much of “There Is No Line” is fairly general, its finish is solidly specific, built on an interaction that only makes sense for these characters, in this setting, at this time.

Hacks effectively leaned into that specificity more and more as it went along, getting ever better along the way. Surely that was seen and appreciated by Emmy voters, who, like their cohort awards-giving body who fill out Oscar ballots, are susceptible to stories set in the entertainment industry. The year that “There Is No Line” won a writing Emmy, Ted Lasso was a juggernaut in most of the other comedy categories. Although the Television Academy clearly felt Ted Lasso was enough of a beloved phenom that it needed to be honored, the writing trophy (and accompany directing award for Aniello’s work on the same episode) feel like stealth acknowledgment that their collective heart was really with Hacks. With the added evidence of second seasons of those two series that followed decidedly different trajectories in quality (Hacks got better; Ted Lasso, um, didn’t), their instincts are wholly understandable and even quite sound.

Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.

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