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From Frasier’s crush to Mare’s mum: How Jean Smart became the new Queen of TV

·3-min read
Hannah Einbinder and Jean Smart in a scene from the HBO Max comedy ‘Hacks’ (HBO Max)
Hannah Einbinder and Jean Smart in a scene from the HBO Max comedy ‘Hacks’ (HBO Max)

In episode four of Mare of Easttown, Kate Winslet’s surly detective sprints over to her mother Helen (Jean Smart) as she’s being wheeled into an ambulance. “Is that it?” says Mare, with typical tact, when she sees the cut on her mother’s forehead. “‘Is that it?!’” shoots back Helen. “Well, I’m sorry I’m not more MAIMED for you.”

It is just one of countless scene-stealing moments for Smart, whose impeccable comic timing gives the grizzly whodunnit some much-needed levity. A palpable hit with both critics and the public, the 69-year-old is currently enjoying something of a “Jean Smartaissance”.

Hacks has helped with that, too. In the brilliant HBO comedy-drama, the finale of which aired in the US this week (the show has yet to reach the UK), Smart plays Deborah Vance, an acid-tongued veteran Vegas stand-up who becomes a mentor / adversary of entitled twenty-something writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder).

When the news broke that HBO Max are renewing the show for a second season, Smart reacted with a statement that would surely tickle Vance. “I am absolutely thrilled we are picked up for a second season,” she wrote, “and I told Hannah it’s ‘No more Miss Nice Guy; from now on it’s Bette and Joan! And guess who’s BETTE??!!’”

Fans of the funniest new show on television will already know that Smart and Einbinder can sling barbs and dirty looks just as viciously as Davis and Crawford. The biggest surprise is why Smart wasn’t already a more regular guest in our homes. She recently told The Daily Beast that she’s grateful for the newfound attention. She added, after one of her unforgettable foghorn laughs, “I mean the ungrateful, petty part of me says: ‘Well, where was all this 25 years ago…?’”

Smart started out in theatre in the Pacific Northwest in the late Seventies, before finding her way to Broadway. Her first major TV role was as office manager Charlene Frazier in sitcom Designing Women, which ran from 1986 to 1991, but it was for her force-of-nature guest appearance on Frasier that she won the first of her three Emmys in 2000. As Frasier’s reacquainted high-school crush Lorna Lynley, she reduced him to a quivering school boy – at least until the morning after, when she reveals herself to be loud, rude and, to Frasier’s abject horror, a smoker. “So you went to bed with the prom queen?” Roz asks Frasier later on. “Yes, and I woke up with Carrie!”

It’s easy to see why Smart took home the Emmy for Best Guest Appearance in a Comedy for the role, which sees her effortlessly move through the gears from charmingly seductive to toe-curlingly obnoxious – sometimes in the same line. The Frasier writers liked her so much that they brought her back the next season, expanding her part, and she won an Emmy for that, too. In 2008, she added a third to her collection after collecting the award for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy for her underrated turn in sitcom Samantha Who?, as the overbearing mother of Christina Applegate’s amnesia-stricken Samantha.

Smart has always had a knack for nuance. In Mare of Easttown, as well as bringing those comic gifts to the role (who can forget that little lick of the lips after retrieving her Häagen-Dazs from inside the bag of frozen vegetables?), she imbued her regret-stricken character with sensitivity and a heart-pinching pathos.

No wonder that Hacks, in which Smart gets to play both outrageous comedy and nuanced drama, suits her so well. Nominations for this year’s Emmys won’t be announced until 13 July, but bookies are already placing odds on whether she’ll match a feat only Betty White has achieved before: winning a comedy Emmy in each of the guest, supporting and lead actress categories. Smart bet.

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