Dirt: Hacks ignored the weirdness of Las Vegas

The HBO show should’ve bet big on the city it’s set in.

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Chris Erik Thomas on why their hometown deserved to shine.

Las Vegas is hell on Earth. I say that as someone who has spent a majority of their life living in, or just outside of, the scraggly mountain ridge that surrounds the cursed, sprawling metropolis. Much like Dante Alighieri entering the gates of Hell under a sign that reads “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,”  I too withered in the inhumane heat as I looked up at our version. “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas,” it says in a menacing mix of fonts capped with stark neon and a star that has been described as both “dynamic” and “explosive” by its Wikipedia page. The sign might as well be telling the souls cursed enough to enter city limits to abandon all hope of leaving without some sort of mental, physical, or financial breakdown — or all three if you’re really lucky). 

Spend one night in Vegas and you can: fall in love, get married, and get divorced; watch a baby in a stroller be pushed down the Strip at 4AM by someone whose high heels busted long ago; witness two Elvis impersonators fight each other; drink a lethal mix of alcohol out of a plastic cup shaped like the Eiffel Tower; vomit next to a recreation of the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty; ride a giant ferris wheel; or do literally all of these things. It is a city throbbing with cursed energy. It is a city whose entire tagline, “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas,” translated to: do whatever the fuck you want. It takes the hedonism of Berlin, wraps it in a capitalist sheen, and sells itself as an irresistible destination for heterosexuals ready to rage. It is Disneyland for broken adults whose hopes and dreams died long before they walked past the rows of slot machines at McCarran Airport, and, frankly, it deserves better than how it was treated in the new HBO Max series Hacks

For the uninitiated, light spoilers ahead. 

Hacks is a new dramedy that stars Jean Smart as an aging comedian named Deborah Vance, whose Las Vegas residency at the fictional Palmetto Casino is struggling to attract an audience of anyone under the age of 40. The solution? An extremely grating millennial comedy writer, Hannah Einbinder as Ava, who has recently been “cancelled” for tweeting a gay joke about a closeted senator. 

They bicker, they fight, they bond over how hard it is to be white women in comedy. Occasionally, other characters are allowed a few scenes. We get some time with Vance’s daughter, DJ, a brilliant, fucked- up jewelry maker whose bulbous earrings look like they would pull off your earlobes. Marty, played by Christopher McDonald, is the owner of the hotel Vance has her residency at. He can’t decide if he wants to have sex with young women or someone his own age, but definitely can decide if he wants to screw over Vance by getting rid of her residency because it’s as stale as whatever they’re serving at the Palmetto buffet. 

Rounding out the cast are a group I can only assume were called The Minorities by the writing room, given how underbaked their storylines were. In the largest of the roles is Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Marucus, her COO, who is given the storyline of being a Black, gay man struggling with being financially tied down to an old white woman who starts dating Wilson, a Latin, gay water inspector played by Johnny Sibilly. A galaxy away are Ugly Betty alum Mark Indelicato as Damien, a gay, Hispanic assistant; Poppy Liu as Kiki, a blackjack dealer who comes to Vance’s mansion to gamble with her and occasionally gets thrown a luxury car in exchange; and Rose Abdoo as Josefina, Vance’s housekeeper, who is thrown into a handful of scenes.

If you hadn’t sussed it out by now, I did not love the show. Much like entering Las Vegas by air or land, I was initially dazzled by the bright lights and potential but, ten episodes later, I left feeling disappointed and disheartened. To use an analogy fit for the setting, Hacks throws away an absolute royal flush [the best hand in poker] of potential. Las Vegas is a precious gift that, when used in the right way, has elevated pop culture. If you set a show in the most absurd example of capitalist excess and hollow debauchery in America, you have to lean into the absurdity, a la The Hangover, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or GLOW

Hacks missed the memo. The first half of the episodes set up the series as a comedic clash of old versus new set against the neon signs and strange world of Las Vegas residencies, whose rich, weird history I’ve written about as part of my contractual obligation to be nice to my hometown in writing every two years. There is a fully functioning soda fountain that looks ripped straight from Taco Bell in the kitchen of Vance’s gleaming, gaudy mansion. In episode two, the duo barter with an eccentric, flamingly homosexual antique collector in the remote town of Primm, a place I can only describe as the place you either stop in for gas or, if you are my grandparents (Doris and Arthur) you go for a weekend gambling getaway. In episode three, Vance visits a local pizza parlor’s grand opening, greeting her local fan club, the Little Debbies. 

It is episode five that puts the most effort into exploring the Vegas of it all, as Ava stops complaining about not being in Los Angeles for an episode and indulges in the Vegas fantasy. She gambles, she drinks, she has a one-night-stand with an extremely eager man who feeds her MDMA. It takes a dark turn I won’t spoil, but it was the most daring creative choice the show made in the entire season. Five episodes later, the show’s grande finale wasn’t an embrace of Las Vegas, it was an aggressive pivot away from it. It sets up season two as a road trip season around the country,; a creative choice that left me wondering why the showrunners had even bothered setting the show in Vegas in the first place.

I know that there is a high possibility that my defense for the city I also loathe may be due to 21 years of heatstroke I endured during my youth there, but even I can clearly see that Hacks gambled away the gift that is Las Vegas. Sure, it may be a critical darling and yes, Jean Smart should be given every acting award available to her, but Hacks was the worst kind of Vegas tourist. It set up shop for ten episodes and dipped its toe into the absurdity, but never committed to letting its incredible cast of characters breathe the hot, dusty air of Sin City. — By Chris Erik Thomas

The Dirt: What starts in Vegas should stay in Vegas.