HBO Max’s ‘Hacks’ Gets Las Vegas All Wrong

Written By Steve Friess on May 18, 2022
HBOMax show Hacks

The second season of HBO Max’s Emmy-winning comedy “Hacks” kicked off last week with its two main characters leaving Las Vegas. The hit the road to refine some of Jean Smart’s stand-up comic Deborah Vance’s new material away from the bright lights of the Strip.

It’s a good thing, too, because for a show largely set in and ostensibly about the business of Vegas, it is shocking how badly its writers understand the town. And just how much they seem to despise it.

The premise of the show reflects this: Ava, a whiny GenZ Hollywood writer who has been canceled because of an offensive tweet, is brought so low in her career that the only gig she can get is to write for Vance, the No. 1 comic headlining in Las Vegas.

In other words, the very best of Vegas is seen as beneath the dignity of any self-respecting L.A. dreamer. As if it’s the mid-1980s and the Strip is an entertainment backwater rather than the A-list mecca we all know that the Las Vegas gambling scene is today.

There’s a lot about “Hacks” that makes you wonder what year it’s supposed to be. But all indications are they think this is a present-day creation. Here are seven of the show’s gravest sins.

Yeah, including you.

No. 1: The Steve Wynn of it all

“Hacks” is supposed to be about female empowerment and bonding. Deborah Vance is a stand-in of sorts for Joan Rivers and other women groundbreakers. Ava’s character development is mostly about understanding and appreciating all the ways the prickly Vance bucked a sexist system to pave the way for the likes of her.

So how is it possible that HBOMax, airing the first season in 2021, nonetheless repeatedly references Wynn as a major Vegas mogul when he was run out of town in 2018 in a #MeToo scandal? You know, the one in which he was credibly accused of a long pattern of sexual harassment.

It’s unlikely Wynn, who divested and left Wynn Resorts, could ever even get a gambling license again. His former company had to prove how far it had distanced itself from him to keep its Boston-area casino.

Nonetheless, Wynn is name-checked at least four times in the first season and figures in a key plot point where he signs Pentatonix to a residency. This flummoxes the owner of the fictional Palmetto, Marty Ghilain, who has told Vance he plans to replace her with the acapella act.

This is the Vegas equivalent of pretending that Harvey Weinstein is still some hotshot movie producer.

It’s so offensive that it’s surprising they haven’t dubbed over it. But the writers are making a calculation here that the only Vegas business executive most viewers would know by name is Steve Wynn. And that’s all that matters to them.

No. 2: Vegas contracts don’t work like this

The plot of the first season rests on the premise that Vance, who still sells out her theater per the camera pans that take in the audience, can be immediately kicked out of a theater by a whimsical owner-operator.

Setting aside the oddity that in this universe dumping a successful act is a smart business move — and for, uh, Pentatonix? — there’s just no way that this sort of maneuver takes place as a blindsiding of the star over lunch.

Vance manages to avert her firing for a few episodes, although Ghilain replaces her Strip billboard with one that insultingly shows her shilling for the resort’s buffet. That, too, could never happen. The marketing material promulgated by the resort is part of a talent contract which, in the cases of Siegfried & Roy, Cirque du Soleil and Danny Gans at least, specified the  verbiage and the sizes of their marquees.

Then, when Ghilain finally fires Vance, she finds out from him the morning after they sleep together (of course) when he tells her she’s going to see something break in that morning’s Las Vegas Review-Journal.

She retorts that she has a contract, but he slaps back that her management already agreed to his buyout offer. The idea that a star’s agent can make such final decisions without ever discussing it with her — let alone getting her approval — is idiotic.

And what about the fans who bought tickets months in advance and planned travel around that? Uh, no.

No. 3: Vegas media doesn’t work like this

For some reason, Hollywood always seems to show the Las Vegas Sun in fiction about Vegas even though it has never been the city’s dominant paper and hasn’t even been a full-service, stand-alone publication since 2005.

Nowadays, it’s a meager four- or maybe eight-page section inside the Review-Journal. Yet there it is, laid out alongside the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and L.A. Times for Vance alongside her coffee on a Sunday morning.

Later, the morning after Vance’s final show, in which she ditched her usual jokes for a more from-the-heart story-telling session, the folks around her scurry to keep her from seeing the negative reviews in the newspaper.

But Vegas shows do not get reviewed like that in the local media. The invite-only audience for a final show of this ilk would probably love witnessing a different, more intimate show rather than the same old ha-ha’s.

But either way, there’s nobody in the local press who would rush to pan the finale of a Vegas icon. There’s no point to it; readers can’t buy tickets anymore, so why go kicking a departing, beloved legend in the nuts? Also, wouldn’t she just get a Google alert anyway? Or a push notification? Who waits for the morning paper anymore?

No. 4: Smoking, smoking everywhere

The minute Ava arrives in Vegas, viewers see people puffing cigarettes in all sorts of public spaces, most notably at airport slot machines and in the Palmetto’s employee cafeteria. She’s told by one husky-voiced grouch in the cafeteria, “The non-smoking section is over there.”

Yet smoking has not been allowed in public spaces or where food is being served since the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act went into effect in 2006. That includes virtually the entire Las Vegas airport and absolutely any dining facility.

Today, the only public places in the state where smoking – or vaping – is legal are:

  • Casino floors
  • Stand-alone bars where minors are prohibited
  • Where there’s no food service
  • Strip clubs
  • Brothels
  • Retail tobacco stores
  • Convention floors of tobacco-related trade shows

No. 5: Dealers don’t make house calls

In “Hacks,” Vance has a private blackjack dealer who comes to her mansion so she can gamble in the comfort of her home.

This is not a thing. Also not a thing: people at blackjack tables announcing they are “all in.”

No. 6: Oy Vegas with the cliches

In the first episode of “Hacks” alone, we glimpse a fat, polyester-suited Elvis driving a scooter on the sidewalk. We hear whines about the temperature being 111 even though a CNBC ticker says it’s May when it’s never that hot. And we see a woman sucking on a yard-long drink while cradling a crying baby in a casino elevator at 10 a.m.

It never gets better. There are mirrors on the ceiling of the honeymoon suite at what is supposed to be one of Vegas’ nicest resorts. A cocktail waitress gives out free drinks at the slot machines at the airport, which does not happen.

There’s a shotgun wedding at a drive-through chapel in which the bride and groom didn’t go to city hall for a marriage license.

Off-Strip Vegas is such a redneck paradise that there’s a gun shop next door to a pizza place and the wifi password is “Lock Her Up.” Also, Ava complains to someone, “I can’t write in my room because my neighbors are having performatively loud sex and the business center’s like a coke den.” Resort business centers in real life make libraries seem like wild spaces.

And here’s the coup de grace: There’s a scene in which an overextended gambler and grifter breaks his hotel window and leaps to his death. A security guard tells Ava, “Yeah, happens all the time. People come here, blow all their money on drugs and hookers, live it up and then, boom – you gotta get a wet vac. It’s a mess.”

Aside from the fact that making fun of suicide is cruel, this is just not true. Yes, Nevada has a pretty high suicide rate, but people jumping from Strip resorts? It is extraordinarily rare. Those windows don’t open and I’m not sure you could break them without some sort of serious weapon.

No. 7: Vegas geography doesn’t make sense

In “Hacks,” the Palmetto appears to be located where the Palazzo is, if the exterior of the resort and the use of the Palazzo font for the Palmetto’s marquee is any indication.

So why is Deborah Vance leaving her show and driving north past the Bellagio in the first episode as she heads to the private jet terminal next to Reid International Airport?

What’s more, at various times out the windows of the Palmetto, the resort appears to be next to both the Excalibur and Circa. Those hotels are at least five miles from one another; Circa isn’t even on the Strip.

During a street-naming ceremony in front of the Las Vegas Convention Center, there’s an Express Men shop where acres and acres of parking should be.

And at one point Deborah and Ava get a flat tire about 15 minutes north of Primm on “Las Vegas Boulevard,” which is a lonely two-lane highway. That might have been a thing before, say, the 1960s when the Los Angeles Highway did go through the desert to SoCal.

Ever since then, there’s been this newfangled thing known as Interstate 15. Before Deborah and Ava return to Vegas again, the “Hacks” hacks ought to use it to go find out a little something about the city they write so knowingly about.

Photo by Roman Korotkov/Shutterstock
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is the national gambling industry correspondent for PlayUSA and its related local sites. He is also a contributing writer for Newsweek. A Long Island native who earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University, Friess worked at newspapers in Rockford, Illinois, Las Vegas, and South Florida before launching a freelance career in Beijing, China, where he served as chief China correspondent for USA Today. After his return to the U.S. in 2003, he settled in Las Vegas, where he covered the gambling industry and the American Southwest regularly for The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic, Time, Portfolio, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. During that time, he created and co-hosted two successful and groundbreaking podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal affairs program The Petcast. In 2011-12, Friess was a Knight-Wallace Fellow for at the University of Michigan. That was followed by a stint as a senior writer covering the intersection of technology and politics at Politico in Washington, D.C., In 2013, he returned permanently to Ann Arbor, where he now lives with his husband, son, daughter and three Pomeranians. He tweets at @SteveFriess and can be reached at [email protected]

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