In the latest season of Hacks, superstar comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and her young new comedy writer, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), are taking both their dysfunctional relationship and the new tell-all hour of comedy they wrote for Deborah on tour. This season is an absolute treasure, as good if not better than the first in striking that beautiful line between comedy and tenderness, creativity and chaos.
Thanks to the painstaking work in season 1 to perfect Ava and Deborah’s dynamic — with Ava as the both privileged and meticulously politically correct Gen Z writer with a modern comedic sensibility, and Deborah as the ultra-famous, older, well-established comic with a big ego and a hardass mentality— this new season absolutely shines.
Ava and Deborah’s relationship is nearly unfathomable, especially as it becomes increasingly toxic this season. Their constant ability to both hurt and help one another, often in the same moment, could very well seem impossible and ridiculous. Hacks pulls it off, though, creating a dynamic that is fascinating, funny, and touching, often all at once, as the duo finds new ways to surprise us in their ability to fuck each other over, and new ways to delight us in their moments of connection and creation. There is a unique satisfaction to watching them iron out Deborah’s new material, to share in the human experience of making each other laugh at such an elevated level. It’s an incredible representation of the collaborative creative process, emotionally loaded as it may be.
With Ava and Deborah as our centerpieces, those around them frequently suffer from the ripple effects of their chaotic personalities. Deborah’s daughter, DJ, played endearingly by the consistently great Kaitlin Olson, continues to try and find her footing in adult life beneath the shadow of her mother’s fame and the traumas that came with building it. Ava and Deborah’s well-meaning and exhausted manager, Jimmy (Paul W. Downs), suffers on both ends from his two messiest clients, while also balancing the continually bonkers needs of his assistant, Kayla (played by the fabulous Megan Stalter, who absolutely shines). Deborah’s marketing CEO, Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), works to find his footing in a life where work, up until this point, has always come first, a trait he admits he learned from Deborah and suffers from now. Much like the relationship between our protagonists, Hacks understands each and every character dynamic it presents to near perfection, guaranteeing even small characters their moments to shine both comedically and emotionally.
As Deborah and Ava slog through the early processes of testing out new material, they are accompanied by a collection of deliciously funny cameos and backdropped by the distinct, inescapable coziness of life on the road, replete with tour buses and dive bars (although we do, fortunately, get a taste of the glorious and gauche world of the Las Vegas Strip that was so compelling in season 1). When Deborah has a moment of doubt about their material, as it is vastly outside of her traditional, self-deprecating, slightly crass work that appeals to a midwest, average Joe crowd, Ava offers some advice — perhaps now is the time to “trust the process,” including both the good and the bad.
Trusting the process is easier said than done for both Ava and Deborah. Season 1 left Ava in the midst of the death of her father, a betrayal of Deborah, and a growing realization that she has fewer and fewer opportunities both in her personal life and her artistic career due to her self-serving tendencies. Deborah, on the other hand, is now completely out of her comfort zone — her years-long residency at a casino abruptly over, brand new material written and begging to be perfected, and a gradual reckoning with the damage she has dealt to the people around her throughout her effortful rise to the top. What’s scarier: being young and figuring it all out, or being older and wiser, but with a gut feeling that you need to throw it all away for something new? Hacks sees these as similar experiences.
It’s hard enough to trust the process in general— creatively, existentially, and personally. It’s even harder to trust the process when you are, as Deborah frankly puts it at one point, as selfish and cruel as Ava and Deborah perceive themselves to be (and while they aren’t necessarily monsters, they are certainly capable of unkindness and self-serving decisions more often than the average person).
While our protagonists work to use comedy to make light of the pain, the two are in the process of finding a balance for Deborah’s new voice — how to poke fun at oneself without being degrading, and how to find one’s voice in places of pain, vulnerability, and truth without being totally unfunny (or, in Deborah’s highly privileged space, totally out of touch).
Hacks itself is invested in striking those same balances that its protagonists grapple with, crafting a story that holds its characters in a simultaneously loving and critical light, encouraging us to laugh at their sharp edges without dismissing them entirely. From Ava to Deborah to their neurotic mothers and addict daughters to their larger, quirky entourage, everyone in Hacks is a little funny, but no one is treated unseriously. It’s a lovely, funny feat of a show, and an incredible follow-up to the knockout first season.