When HBO Max hacks premiered to overwhelmingly positive reviews a year ago, most of the initial excitement boiled down to uncontroversial assessments such as, “Jean Smart is a divine force of acting greatness, and while we’re not worthy to inhale the same oxygen as her, we must cherish these 10 weeks of simultaneous occupation on this floating blue and green orb we call Earth.
And, I mean, where’s the lie?
Crisp writing and strong performance overcome lapses in focus.
The focus on Smart’s indisputable greatness has become a minor distraction from the more holistic analyzes of hacks it might recognize that, probably for the first few episodes, the show was decent but maybe not quite up to Smart’s level – and that after the middle of the season, hacks became a better show overall for being more of an ensemble, albeit one with Smart as the first among not quite equals.
The second hacks season finds the show picking up qualitatively where it left off, now fully aware of all the exceptional moving parts at its disposal – but still not necessarily fully prepared to make the most of all of those parts. This comedic examination of female friendship and mentorship stays just on the verge of something truly big.
Narratively, Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky’s series picks up where it also left off. Even after her latest performance bombed in Las Vegas, comedy legend Deborah Vance (Smart) is creatively invigorated and ready to hit the road testing her new material, with Ava (Hannah Einbinder) for the ride, despite his abnormally large hands. Ava, carrying her father’s ashes in a box of tennis balls, is also beyond nervous that Deborah will learn the email she drunkenly sent to TV producers last season venting all her feelings and stories (completely accurate) about Deborah.
Ava, Deborah, and Deborah’s personal assistant, Damien (Mark Indelicato), embark on an ambitious tour, overseen by savvy veteran Weed (an excellent Laurie Metcalf, as you might expect), aboard an inflated tour bus. That leaves Carl Clemons-Hopkins’ Marcus to handle Deborah’s business interests and personal chaos in Las Vegas, with Jimmy (Downs) and assistant Kayla (Megan Stalter) handling her professional interests in Los Angeles.
A thing hacks has already established its ability to do interesting, if not always smooth, sets up for contrived drama and then avoids dragging out the artifice. So if you rolled your eyes at Deborah’s bemusedly feigned outrage at Ava taking a simple job interview last season (or Ava’s unnecessary decision to keep that interview a secret) or at the cliffhanger regarding Ava’s incriminating email, there’s some comfort in knowing that the characters on hacks above all, do not prolong free secret custody or grudges.
Well-drawn personality types present regular opportunities for friction, generational conflict, and the kind of high-pitched dialogue that keeps hacks entertaining. At some point, the writers will surely have the confidence to let that drive the story a bit more, rather than relying too heavily on “what happens when [insert character] learn about [insert thing that didn’t need to be a secret]?” diversions.
In theory, the tour gives the show’s creative team a constant sense of movement and momentum that the first season didn’t always have, as well as a steady stream of opportunities for regional humor and laughter on the road. And the tour does, indeed, yield a lot of good stuff and ever-new situations, from state fairs to a standout episode on a gay cruise that’s not the type of gay cruise Deborah expects.
At the same time, however, having Las Vegas as your home base gave hacks an interesting and often fresh sense of place and replacing it with a series of generic hover locations decreases moderately. Again, how many viewers were watching hacks for his grounded treatment of Las Vegas glitzy midriff?
Intelligence was, and remains, the main reason people surrender and, as is the case with most characters on the show, the writers have a pretty good idea of Deborah’s flaws and strengths, and gave their universally beloved star an expanded range of registers. Deborah sings, she has a torrid sex, and she continues to delve into the things she did as a young comedian to succeed in a male-dominated profession. Smart also points out Deborah’s most attractive and unpleasant traits and will, of course, be back on top of all Best Actress awards for a season about a comedic woman finding a new voice on and off the stage. which is, at every level, handled with more consideration and less schtick than the last season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
No one ever needed to work hard to showcase Smart’s strengths, but the writers had to learn throughout the first season what the relatively inexperienced Einbinder can do. “Falling” remains, for me, the pivotal episode of the first season, showing Ava’s vulnerability and self-destructive tendencies, and making her more than just a fun Gen Y/Z person who would have been “canceled” for an inconsiderate tweet, where the show started. The second season makes more use of Einbinder’s physical clumsiness and makes more sense of the compulsion to repeat that compels Ava to stay with Deborah.
And, in turn, the second season understands that hacks is a better show as a true two-handed show – Einbinder continues to be misclassified as “support” for awards purposes – than as a glorified one-man show for Smart.
Figuring out how to use the rest of the cast isn’t always so consistent, starting with surprise Emmy nominee Clemons-Hopkins, who’s been adrift for a while before getting some of their best bits in the final two. out of six episodes sent to reviewers.
Aware that the Jimmy-Kayla dynamic was a favorite for some viewers, hacks continues to research different ways to keep Downs and Stalter (or keep Downs on camera, since he’s a regular co-writer and frequent director). So there’s more Jimmy and Kayla this season, and their storylines attract some always-welcome guest stars, including Ming-Na Wen and Martha Kelly, but those scenes usually feel like auditions for a spin-off.
The same goes for efforts to bring scene-stealers Poppy Liu, as indie blackjack dealer Kiki, and Kaitlin Olson, as Deborah’s daughter DJ, into the main story, and smack arrange to bring back artists like Luenell, Jane Adams and Christopher McDonald.
hacks continues to expand its world. It’s not just the Jean Smart show and it’s not just an examination of cancel culture or a portrayal of an avatar of Joan Rivers. There are plenty of small reasons why the second season of hacks doesn’t jump from great quality to greatness, but there are plenty of good reasons why that’s not really an issue.