Emmy spotlight: Devon Sawa’s guest turn on ‘Hacks’ is a one-night wonder

In the sixth episode of “Hacks’” excellent second season, Deborah (Jean Smart) gets hit on at the bar by a man, Jason, who’s young enough to “be my son.” She flippantly tries to dismiss him, thinking he’s just talking to her because she’s famous, until he asks her what she does. “You really don’t know?” she asks, incredulous. “No,” he says, shaking his head. “Should I?” “No,” she replies with a glint in her eye. Jason might not know who Deborah Vance is, but Emmy voters should definitely know and nominate the man who plays him: Devon Sawa.

If you’re from a certain generation (read: old millennials), chances are you immediately clocked Sawa, who set many hearts aflutter in the ’90s as human Casper in 1995’s “Casper” opposite Christina Ricci before sharing another kiss with her in “Now and Then” later that year, and as the follicularly blessed Junior Floyd in 1994’s “Little Giants” (find me someone with better hair, I’ll wait). The OG “Stan,” Sawa has done a lot of horror as an adult, including turn-of-the-century favorites “Idle Hands” (1999) and “Final Destination” (2000), and currently stars on Syfy’s “Chucky,” but it’s this romantic guest spot that shrewdly leverages his former heartthrob status that has brought about some of his best work.

A storyline involving an older woman hooking up with a younger guy could go a number of ways, and likely would on any other show, but “Hacks” is too smart for anything formulaic. Jason is not a troll or a creep. Deborah doesn’t get the rug pulled out of from under her, though she does pull her fur out from under one of his roommates. Jason is just genuinely into Deborah, a woman he saw at a bar and is attracted to, and with whom he wants to spend a fun, uncomplicated night (and whose spice rack he owns, he probably definitely learned the next morning).

SEE Emmy Experts slugfest: Why the ‘Hacks’ finale could make it the comedy series to beat

The best part of Sawa’s performance is that you can tell he, as the kids say, understood the assignment. He knew exactly how to play this character, which is to underplay it. Anything more would come off too hokey and shallow — and even fake. Jason’s charming, for sure, but Sawa isn’t picking low-hanging fruit and cranking it up to 100. He plays it straight, subtle and sincere, lending an authenticity to Jason in a matter of seconds. The age difference is quickly addressed and discarded, and we’re left watching two adults having a lovely, sweet night together, no strings attached.

Jason and Deborah’s post-coital conversation over beers is also hotter than your average sex scene. Part of that is due to Sawa and Smart’s off-the-charts chemistry, but Sawa again keys in on the understated earnest notes to play as Jason, a single dad and FedEx employee, inquires about Deborah’s life. He pulls off the rare feat of, in the most natural, laidback manner, portraying someone who is wholeheartedly interested in their one-night stand’s life, not just making small talk. It’s not hard to see why Deborah opens up to him, sharing intimate details with, essentially, a stranger and admitting she was at fault too in her sister and husband’s affair. That then leads to her breakthrough in her comedy act, giving the episode its title, “The Click.”

“Hacks” is overflowing with Emmy-worthy guest stars this season, most of them women — it could fill up the entire comedy guest actress category alone between Laurie Metcalf, Ming-Na Wen, Jane Adams, Harriet Sansom Harris, Susie Essman and Kaitlin Olson — so hopefully no one forgets about Sawa on the actor side. Last year, the HBO Max comedy scored 15 nominations, including two surprising acting bids for Adams and Carl Clemons-Hopkins. If it blows up even more now, as many shows do in their second years, Sawa could get deservedly swept up in the love. His appearance is also precisely the type that a guest category ought to recognize: He’s a true guest star — just one episode — who makes a great impact with an unforgettable performance. We don’t see Jason again after Deborah’s hysterical but glamorous walk of shame, but if voters do the right thing, we will see Sawa’s name on the Best Comedy Guest Actor shortlist on July 12.

Emmy odds for Best Comedy Guest Actor
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