Deborah Vance shows off a yellow ball gown with black ruffles on it.

I Have Questions About the Big Bird Dress in ‘Hacks’

Hacks season 3 has finally arrived, and with a two-episode premiere! The first episode, “Just For Laughs,” sees Ava (Hannah Einbinder) and Deborah (Jean Smart) flinging some of their trademark barbs—over an amazingly ugly dress.

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Warning: this article contains spoilers for Hacks season 3, episode 1, “Just For Laughs.” It does not get into episode 2.

When season 3 opens, Deborah is doing great. Her career is better than ever! She’s swimming in fame and recognition! Her shows are selling out! When we catch up with her, she’s alternating between rearranging her salt and pepper shaker collection and picking out which dress to wear to an awards show. None of the designer looks are doing it for her, so she goes to her “closet,” which is actually a warehouse full of clothes. She picks out a yellow ballgown, much to the delight of her stylists.

Ava, meanwhile, is doing … fine. She’s writing for a socially responsible comedy show, which basically sums up her whole personality! She gets to be on a panel and everything! However, she soon finds out that Deborah hired two writers after firing her last season, and she’s stung at being cut out of Deborah’s success.

When she sees the yellow dress, though, she sees an opportunity to push back.

The thing is, the dress is ugly. Like astonishingly ugly. “It’s giving Big Bird,” Ava cries, before calling a gay bellhop to give his opinion. He confirms that it’s hideous—but then Deborah walks in, and suddenly, the dress is amazing.

We can all see what’s happening. Deborah’s surrounded by yes men who are too starstruck to be straight with her. After the bellhop’s truth bomb, though, she’s ready to admit that the dress is an embarrassment.

A quick note about that dress, by the way: TV Insider reports that it wasn’t created just for the show. “It is an existing dress,” says Hacks costume designer Kathleen Felix-Hager. “It was a dress designed by Bill Blass in that hideous yellow for whatever reason.” Felix-Hager explains that she modified the dress slightly, adding that the look “had to be ugly, but it also had to be believable that at some point Deborah would’ve thought it was pretty or Deborah would’ve gravitated to it.”

That’s Hollywood for you!

Anyway, it’s not like Deborah didn’t know what was happening before Hannah and the bellhop showed up. “Why are you laughing?” she asks one audience early in the episode, when they burst into helpless laughter before she’s even gotten to the punchline of a joke. That awareness that people are feeding her what she wants to hear is what makes the Big Bird dress so fascinating.

Because I will never in a million years believe that Deborah actually likes that thing. Come on, man. It looks like a bumblebee got flattened on a windshield! It’s nothing like the classy sequined pantsuits she usually wears. When she first put it on, I assumed that she was testing her stylists to see how honest they were willing to be with her, but then it slowly dawned on me that she was actually planning to wear it.

Ava hits the nail on the head while she and Deborah share a drink. Deborah’s bored, Ava explains. Her job has become too easy, so she’s setting arbitrary challenges for herself. After the episode, my husband remarked that there’s something Freudian about deciding to wear such a disaster of an outfit to an awards ceremony, and he’s right. Deborah’s frustrated that even after her comeback, audiences still aren’t responding to her work. Before her special, they’d walk out on her show when a cow was calving; now they laugh simply because she’s in the room. If she wasn’t using the dress to test her stylists, was she perhaps on the verge of sabotaging her own success with a fashion disaster?

Sounds like Deborah could use a writing partner who can help her keep pushing herself in the right ways—and maybe toss that dress in a dumpster.

(featured image: Max)


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Julia Glassman
Julia Glassman (she/her) holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and has been covering feminism and media since 2007. As a staff writer for The Mary Sue, Julia covers Marvel movies, folk horror, sci fi and fantasy, film and TV, comics, and all things witchy. Under the pen name Asa West, she's the author of the popular zine 'Five Principles of Green Witchcraft' (Gods & Radicals Press). You can check out more of her writing at <a href="https://juliaglassman.carrd.co/">https://juliaglassman.carrd.co/.</a>