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  • Writer's pictureSamantha Cross

Archives on TV: Hacks

[Spoiler Alert: Hacks, Season 1]

So Hacks is an exhausting show. There's only ten episodes, but after watching them all over a period of two days it doesn't feel so much like you've run a marathon as it is you've been trying to run a marathon but it's through molasses on a cold winter's day. There are definitely funny bits and moments throughout the season, plus Jean Smart and Christopher McDonald are hilariously sublime, but it feels like I, the viewer, am putting in more labor just by watching the show than the show is making me invested in what's happening.

Speaking of labor (yes, nailed that smooth transition!), let's talk about how Hacks devalues the actual labor of archivists!

If you haven't watched, or don't care to watch, Hacks is an HBO Max "dark" comedy about the sudden working partnership of Las Vegas comedic headliner Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and disgraced, but youthful comedy writer Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder). Through their relationship, the show explores the generational divides of comedy as well as the baked in sexism and ageist attitudes towards women in the comedic profession. And this is where the show really shines because Jean Smart is a superb comedic actress, which makes the highs and lows of Deborah's past and present equally as engaging to watch. Everything else surrounding her is mostly nonsense with some characters existing for reasons I do not fully understand - yes, I'm looking at you, Kayla.

But back to the part where the show devalues archival labor. In Episode 2, "Primm," as part of the process of Ava "getting to know" Deborah and her comedic voice, Deborah takes her into a large room that looks like the basement of the mansion she calls home. Within the room is forty years worth of jokes, appearances, and promotional materials that Deborah instructs Ava to archive.

Hacks, Episode 2: "Primm"

I would like to reiterate that Ava is a young woman in her twenties who, in terms of what the show has given us as backstory, has no experience as an archivist. She's a comedy writer given the assignment of organizing and digitizing 40 years of materials, a lot of it created well before she was even born.

We're then treated to Ava complaining about the work of archiving in Episode 3, "A Gig's a Gig," to her manager, Jimmy (Paul W. Downs), and then to Deborah's business partner Marcus (Carl Clemons), who tells her they need the materials archived "soon" in order to complete a Best Of DVD. This conversation supposedly happens the day after Ava's been assigned the role of archivist as part of her job. When Ava does go to the basement to do some archiving, we see more mixed media in the form of VHS, Betamax, and disks alongside loose papers, file folders and partially filled, vaguely labeled banker's boxes. That there is even equipment to play the outdated media on is a miracle, but makes sense given Deborah would likely need those to review older appearances.

The last time any archiving work is mentioned is in Episode 6, "New Eyes," when Ava tells Deborah that she's almost done digitizing everything because she "stayed late a few nights." After that, we get nothing else about the archiving project, which has been completed, presumably based on the timeline of the show, within a few weeks. Maybe a month, if I'm being generous.

So, let me get this straight, Hacks, a person with no experience as an archivist was able to organize and digitize 40 years worth of mixed media within a month? For a show that goes to great lengths to point out the actual work involved in being a comedian, you sure don't apply it to any other profession.

Where did Ava digitize all of those television appearances? Is it cloud-based? Did she create a database from whole cloth? How did she digitize those VHS and Betamax tapes? Surely Deborah doesn't have the equipment necessary to do that, so Ava would have to find a service to, which costs money. Why didn't she bring that up to Deborah? I know she's rich, but that's still a lot of money given the 40 years of material. What about tapes and disks that might have been corrupted? It's an inevitability that audiovisual materials will degrade over time, so some of those tapes had to be unusable. Then you have to factor in data migration. If you're going to digitize materials, then you have to consider where it will be stored in the future as technology advances.

Okay, let's switch over to the loose paper containing jokes and notes about the jokes and probably the final set lists. Did Ava organize them by subject matter? Did she go chronologically? How are the jokes cross-referenced with the television appearances or the set lists for Deborah's standup shows? What about ephemeral material like awards, magazine and newspaper clippings? Did she digitize the paper as well? If so, did she transcribe the handwritten material? Did she prepare a spreadsheet of what's contained within whatever banker's boxes were kept? Deborah would need to know where everything is now that it's been organized, so how was Ava keeping track of her progress? Once again, did she create a database to make things accessible? Or did she keep some of the paper? If so, how has it been stored? Does Ava know about how paper deteriorates over time? Probably not, so she likely didn't put the paper in acid free boxes or folders. Did she put everything back in boxes and put them on shelves? What does the room look like now that the archiving is done? Please don't tell me she kept everything!

She kept everything, didn't she? Yeah, that sounds about right.

Do you see what I'm getting at? There's no way Ava could have organized, digitized, and archived 40 years worth of materials within a one month period. It's not possible given the amount of time and labor that's involved. Most trained archivists would need prep time to evaluate the collection, create a plan, then execute said plan. Even if money's not an issue, the time and labor of one person couldn't accomplish that kind of task within a month. That's six months of work, at minimum.

It doesn't help that the show treats Ava's archiving duties as some kind of punishment, at least through Ava's eyes. Yes, she's getting to know Deborah's voice through her past work, but the payoff to those archiving efforts in minimal within the show's reality. It serves the purpose of giving us more of Deborah's turbulent and heartbreaking past, but Ava barely seems to care about their significance until the plot requires her to. It's something she can comment on to Deborah to show some kind of growth in their relationship, but the labor of archiving is treated dismissively. Ava's given the assignment, complains, and then it's finished with very little fanfare. Apparently an untrained comedic writer can do what I do without the years of training and debt.

Wow, if only I'd known it was that easy.

1 Comment

Priscila Hernandez
Priscila Hernandez
Jun 11

Thank you for this great review! I LOVE the show Hacks lol. For me, the archiving subplot (as absurd as it sounded for my trained archivist brain) was the show's wax on/wax off moment (karate kid, anyone?). Pivotal to the show because it gave Ava exclusive access to the "science" if you will of Deborah's comedy... unintentionally underscores how the hard work of archiving pays dividends. I agree that the show makes the labor sound easy with how quickly Ava "archives" all 40 years of material in a matter of weeks. <3

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