For the second year in a row, Jean Smart has claimed her crown as the most outstanding leading actress in a comedy series.
Despite going up against steep competition, the Hacks actor was awarded her fifth Emmy (and twelfth nomination) during the award ceremony on September 12.
Hacks is one of HBO Max's best shows, and stand-up comedy legend Deborah Vance will certainly go down in history as one of Smart’s most iconic roles—but she’s actually been one of the best actors on TV since the '80s. From Designing Women to Mare of Easttown, we’re breaking down the most memorable roles from her career.
Designing Women (1986-1991)
The role that put Jean Smart on the map was that of Charlene Frazier on the CBS sitcom, Designing Women. The series followed a group of women working at an Atlanta design firm, with her portraying the ditzy but sweet office manager. The naive, good-natured woman is definitely a far cry from Deborah Vance—you might not even recognize her on the show if it weren’t for the fact that she’s barely aged in 40 years.
Smart left the series after the fifth season, but not before helping to establish Designing Women as one of the smartest (no pun intended) comedies of the time.
Prior to Hacks, one of Smart’s most critically acclaimed roles was a guest spot on the NBC sitcom, Frasier.
She played the role of Lana Gardner, an attractive and charismatic woman who upends Frasier’s clean-cut life with her aggressive, uninhibited personality. After their first night together, she is seen smoking cigarettes in Frasier’s bed and chasing aspirin with a glass of red wine while yelling at her sons over the phone.
Lana is a lot more reminiscent of the Jean Smart we know from Hacks: brash, unapologetic, and ridiculously funny. While Frasier and Lana clearly weren’t a match romantically, the writers brought her back during the next several seasons as a recurring character—leading to two back-to-back Emmy wins for outstanding guest actress in a comedy series.
Sweet Home Alabama (2002)
Shortly after her work on Frasier, the frequently funny lady was cast as Stella Kay in the romantic comedy, Sweet Home Alabama, portraying Reese Witherspoon’s mother-in-law.
I have to hand it to the costume and hair styling team—Jean Smart is a perfect southern belle in this now classic, with her perfect ringlet curls and deep south accent. Even though her family is portrayed as a little bit rough around the edges, Stella Kay has that southern charm that radiates whether she’s in a trailer or at a wedding reception.
This movie was a huge step for Jean Smart’s foray into film. While her role wasn’t as much in the spotlight as Witherspoon’s obviously was, the film went on to be a big box office hit.
Her next Emmy nominations came when she held a particularly important guest role on the Fox action drama, 24, a show famous for portraying only one day per season, with each episode playing out as an hour-long look at real-time events. Smart played the intense and mentally unstable first lady, Martha Logan.
The first lady only appeared in 24 episodes of the series' nine-season run, but her performance was enough to warrant two back-to-back Emmy nominations for outstanding supporting actress in a drama series and outstanding guest actress in a drama series.
She gave a perfect performance as a first lady who is more capable than her husband, but is plagued by her own mental health issues. Smart is strong and witty as ever in this role, and it’s one you can’t miss if you’re a fan of the actress.
Samantha Who? (2007-2009)
Continuing her run of Emmy nominations, Smart played Regina on the ABC sitcom, Samantha Who?. Starring Christina Applegate, the comedy was the story of a woman who suffers amnesia after a car accident, only to find out that she may not have been a very good person in her “old” life.
While the series had a rocky sophomore season, Smart was consistently funny as Samantha’s overbearing mother.
Yet another powerhouse role appeared for Smart in the FX anthology series Fargo, where she played Floyd Gerhardt, the wife of an organized crime boss who must take over her husband’s business after he suffers a stroke. While dealing with her power-hungry sons, all of whom think they can run the business better than their mother, Floyd asserts herself as a mob boss who shouldn’t be messed with.
You might be sensing a theme here—Jean Smart has a knack for playing women who are far more cunning than the men around her.
I love a good therapist role. The power to be calm and pensive while still holding a steady hand is one many actors can’t nail—but of course, Jean Smart continued to flex her acting chops as Dr. Melanie Bird in Legion, an FX show that exists in an alternate reality of the X-Men universe.
Her psychiatric therapist character represents the theme of ongoing healing when dealing with mental illness. The character also represented a departure from the source material, since mutants with mental afflictions have usually only been treated with medicine in past X-Men films and comics.
In the 2019 limited series, Watchmen (based on the graphic novel), Jean Smart played Laurie Juspeczyk. Fans of the lore will recognize that name as the alias of the Silk Spectre, a crime-fighting superhero skilled in hand-to-hand combat.
The actress played a middle-aged version of the character, who’s grown up and has a job as an FBI agent (specifically on the Anti-Vigilante Task Force). Having once been a vigilante herself, that’s a complicated head space to live in.
The creators of the show originally wanted Sigourney Weaver to play Laurie, but Smart got the job after the Aliens star turned it down. No surprise here—the casting choice worked out for the best, and she was again nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Laurie.
First the first lady, now the president. Smart played President Monahan in Superintelligence, a 2020 sci-fi/rom-com film starring Melissa McCarthy, as Carol Peters, a former tech executive who accidentally stumbles upon an all-knowing A.I.
This film isn’t necessarily the most critically acclaimed on the list; however, Jean Smart’s character is undoubtedly a bright spot in the movie. If you’re a fan of the actor, it will come as no surprise that she can play a convincing leader of the free world.
Senior Moment (2021)
Senior Moment is a cute rom-com starring Smart, William Shatner, and Christopher Lloyd. This one is about finding love and finding yourself in the later stages of your life. The main characters must deal with letting go of what no longer serves them (like a Porsche) in order to find happiness.
This isn’t your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy—it’s a one for people who haven’t given up on finding love and fulfillment despite qualifying for senior discounts.
Mare Of Easttown (2021)
The last can’t miss performance on our list is Mare of Easttown, an HBO crime drama about a small-town murder. Smart played Helen, the mother of our titular character, Mare (Kate Winslet). Helen is the matriarch of Mare’s family, but she does things her own way: cynically, and with ice cream hidden in a bag of assorted frozen vegetables.
Smart was praised for her scene-stealing performance in this thought-provoking show, again earning an Emmy nomination for outstanding supporting actress in a limited series. In the words of Vulture’s Jackson McHenry:
Come on, who else could earn an Emmy nom for playing Fruit Ninja?! The very same award season, Smart was additionally nominated for her first Hacks Emmy (which she won).
Okay, so these picks shouldn’t necessarily be considered Jean Smart’s best performances (since she only lent her voice for them), but they’re some of MY favorites. Nearly 20 years ago, she played neurosurgeon Dr. Possible on the Disney Channel series Kim Possible. However, in my opinion, her best voice acting job is that of the Depression Kitty on Netflix’s Big Mouth. Just look at that cat and tell me you can’t hear Smart’s voice.
We might have missed some of your favorites—sorry, Jean Smart has simply done too many great roles to list them all.
Season 3 of Hacks is set to premiere some time in 2023, but we’ll update you with the official release date once it’s announced. Until then, you can rewatch Seasons 1 and 2 of Hacks with an HBO Max subscription.
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She/her. Lover of female-led comedies, Saturday Night Live, and THAT scene in Fleabag. Will probably get up halfway through the movie to add more butter to the popcorn.