Hard to beat the first season of hacks, HBO Max’s bitterly funny series about two women (one Gen-Z, one boomer) navigating the male-dominated world of stand-up comedy. With a singular blend of caustic humor, incisive social commentary and heartbreaking pathos — not to mention a starring Jean Smart in the role of his career — he rightfully landed three Emmys last year.
But just like Smart’s Deborah Vance, hacks ups its game with its second round, in which creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky take their show on the road as Deborah and her beleaguered joke writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) embark on a journey through the country for Deborah at the studio for her new issue. In the first episode, “There Will Be Blood”, the series picks up where we left off: after Deborah slaps Ava, the latter gets run over and sends an e-mail revealing all the dark secrets of his mentor to a pair of writers working on a TV series about a nightmarish boss. The two may have reconciled after Ava’s father died, but that damning email is still somewhere in the ether, hanging over their relationship like an ax.
Meanwhile, wonderful supporting characters embark on their own journeys: Deborah’s assistant, Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), is spiraling after a breakup; the bizarre relationship between Deborah and Ava’s manager, Jimmy (Downs), and her assistant, Kayla (the chaotically funny Megan Stalter), reaches new lows; Deborah’s daughter, DJ (Kaitlin Olson), continues her quest for her mother’s approval; and Jane Adams breaks down as Ava’s mother, Nina. (Also: kudos to Poppy Liu, who lights up the room as Kiki, Deborah’s blackjack dealer.)
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about hacks is that it shines a spotlight on one of scripted television’s most despised demographics: older women. Of course, there’s Deborah herself, who (like her real-life inspiration, Joan Rivers) refuses to retreat into a culture that prefers to make any woman over 50 virtually invisible. She’s played brilliantly by Smart, who explains how Deborah’s cheeky outer shell can crack, revealing the sadness and insecurity behind it. (In an industry that’s cruel to women of all ages, let alone septuagenarians, she clings to the skin of her razor-sharp teeth and does her best not to show it.) But season two brings also leading actors. who we’re always happy to see: Laurie Metcalf, who plays Alice, aka “Weed,” the gang’s no-nonsense tour manager, and Harriet Harris, who plays Susan, a former stand-up girl who Deborah fears will ruin her career.
As with the first season, the cold, warm heart and soul of hacks lies in the relationship between Deborah and Ava. They’re both prickly at best, amoral at worst, the kind of “difficult women” who have to fight tooth and nail for their place in the industry, unafraid to do the dirty work. While rounded and fully fleshed out characters, they’re also the perfect parodies of their respective generations: Deborah can’t resist a sale at Lord & Taylor and hasn’t a clue how to put a new touch in her phone. Meanwhile, the performative Ava is awakened almost by reflex and feels entitled to ascend to the Hollywood ladder despite her consistently missed chances.
Their push-and-pull, evoked in equal parts dry wit and fragile emotion by Smart and Einbinder, makes it one of the most compelling dynamics happening on TV right now. Deborah acts as Ava’s mother, tormentor, friend, and mentor; sometimes their relationship takes on an almost romantic vibe. These women, it seems, despise each other almost as much as they love each other.
Deborah can be cartoonishly cruel to Ava. In perfect slapstick, she forces the young woman to sleep in a coffin-shaped bunk bed on the tour bus, surrounded by an antique chest of drawers Deborah picked up at a yard sale. But in the same breath, she’ll be empathetic like no one else in Ava’s life. Ava, in turn, saves Deborah from herself in her lowest moments. “Nothing matters more,” she says of Deborah’s dogged commitment to her career, “even though it should.”
Although season one’s Vegas environs were for the writers to let their characters run free, season two’s road-trip format gives them a whole new playground, whether it’s Ava sowing her bisexual oats on a lesbian leisure cruise, or Deborah doing a set at a Midwest State Fair that’s overshadowed by the birth of a calf. It also stuffs To hackDeborah’s spiny set in a small tour bus, a hilarious contrast to Deborah’s sprawling mansion from last season.
This slice of hacks is also, surprisingly, smoother than the previous one, as our motley crew finds common ground in the most unlikely places. Luckily, though, that doesn’t take away from those cut lines we love. (“Oh, I don’t think Luna is going to be funny,” Kiki says of her young daughter. “She’s really comfortable with herself.”)
hacks is truly a study in the difficulty of growing up as a person in a world that is constantly trying to make you smaller, whether you are an aging star, a starving young writer, a queer black man, or a grieving wife. For every step forward, there are five steps back. But the effort is a joy to behold.