The first meeting between caustic comedy doyenne Deborah (Jean Smart) and snarky Twitter-infamous writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) in “Hacks” doesn’t exactly go well.
Ava storms out after an exchange of withering putdowns, before Deborah screeches after her and offers her a job, closing the first chapter of the new HBO Max comedy and launching a complex mentor-mentee dynamic.
“Hacks” at its heart is about mentorship, a theme it has in common with a good number of its fellow comedy series nominees — namely Netflix’s “Cobra Kai,” Hulu’s “Pen15” and of course Apple TV Plus’ “Ted Lasso.”
Deborah and Ava simply don’t understand each other at the beginning of the series. The former thinks the latter’s jokes aren’t jokes (“Where are the punchlines?”), and the latter sees the former as a sad hack in cruise control. Gradually, they find common ground and “learn to love each other and work together,” says co-creator Jen Statsky.
Moving forward, co-creator Lucia Aniello says the pair still have plenty to learn. “They are both still messing up and misbehaving, and obviously they’re not going to get to a place where they’ve reached full zen, but we do want them to be the people they really see in each other,” she says. “Unless they’re perfect people, they both still have a lot to learn. They’re definitely not perfect people.”
From its inception, “Cobra Kai” has also been a show that has played with the reciprocal mentor-mentee relationship between characters from different generations. The series asks the question, “What if a kid finds the wrong mentor — a mentor who doesn’t have all the Miyagisms, all the sage advice,” as co-creator Josh Heald puts it.
Having the rivals from the original “Karate Kid” franchise now be the leads of the new series helps put the struggles of their children’s generation into context, adds co-creator Hayden Schlossberg.
In the show’s most recent season, the crop of teenage karate students almost play sensei musical chairs, jumping from one adviser to another. “It’s about the right student, finding the right mentor, and about showing the value of having multiple mentors in life,” says co-creator John Hurwitz. “You might not get everything that you need from one person when it comes to growing. It takes a whole village.”
Many of the characters in “Cobra Kai” are shown to come from broken homes. Similarly, the effects of not having a stable counseling figure are laid painfully bare in the second season of Hulu’s “Pen15.”
In that series, Anna’s parents’ divorce in Season 2 is based loosely off the parental split that executive producer and star Anna Konkle experienced as a young girl. Although Konkle herself had stability in her life, she says, her character starts “searching for guidance in the wrong places” without the same presence.
“We wanted to unapologetically show a home life we are taught to feel shame around. So much of the DNA of ‘Pen15’ is talking about, laughing at, seeing the things that cause shame and produce secrets,” she says.
Scenes of Anna’s parents screaming at each other juxtapose with the tender moments of Maya (Maya Erskine) and her mother in a bath. But ultimately, the most nurturing relationship in the series is that between the two best friends. Konkle says friendship, though often portrayed as “trite,” can be “vital to survival,” especially if one’s parents aren’t as present to guide the way.
“To be your best friend’s biggest cheerleader is a symptom of seeing them as better than the rest,” Konkle says. “When that feeling is mutual, the magic of best friendship blossoms into a sexless love story. One where you see their greatness and they see yours, even when others miss it.”