Film & Television

‘Hacks’ Season Two: On the Road Again

“This has been such a joy and — at this stage of the game — such an unbelievable treat.” That’s Jean Smart, who also acknowledged and sincerely thanked her cast, crew, writers, agents, and children, accepting 2021’s SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series. Her role as Deborah Vance in HBO’s Hacks was also recognized with a Golden Globe and a Primetime Emmy, along with more than a dozen lesser-known Hollywood awards and nominations.

One hopes that — at this stage of the game — Ms. Smart has a very large mantle.

Of course, Smart was referring to her age (now 70) and to her longevity in a business that perpetually worships and rewards youth. And, the industry’s preoccupation with the young is measurably worse for women than for men. In an analysis by TIME magazine, male actors saw their careers peak at age 46, while female actors peaked at 30. If Smart feels like she’s beaten the odds, who could blame her?

Hacks is an episodic dark comedy that pairs Smart’s world-famous, but possibly “over the hill,” standup superstar Deborah Vance with Hannah Einbinder’s entitled millennial writer Ava Daniels. Their common agent Jimmy (Paul W. Downs) has done the mismatched matchmaking to save both their careers: Deborah’s because her long-time Vegas residency is being replaced by a more contemporary act, and Ava’s because no one will work with her (and her attitude).

The two women clash from the outset. Ava finds Deborah’s humor stale and out of touch. Deborah resents Ava as an inexperienced newcomer. Ava is appalled by the myriad ways that Deborah has sold out (pizza chain openings, a clothing and accessories line on QVC). Deborah doesn’t appreciate being schooled by a woman young enough to be her daughter. You get the general picture.

However, as so often happens with these set-ups (see The Odd Couple and Mary Tyler Moore (1970), Moonlighting(1985), The X-Files (1993), and even Sesame Street’s (1969) Ernie and Bert), the sum of the whole is greater than its parts. Deborah and Ava find an awkward rhythm and begin to value each other’s differences. Until everything falls apart at the end of season one.

Just when Deborah begins to trust Ava, Ava pretends to have a doctor’s appointment so she can interview for a job with a new TV series. When she realizes that the producers only want her so they can weave in real-life dirt about Deborah, she turns it down. Unfortunately, Deborah learns about it and the two have a fight that ends with Ava calling Deborah a “hack” and Deborah slapping her. A few (too many) drinks later and Ava sends a scorching email to the producers, listing enough of Deborah’s faults and foibles to fill their first season. Meanwhile, Deborah has a change of heart and shows up at Ava’s father’s funeral. Although the two reconcile, the email is out there, and we had to wait nearly a year to learn when and how it will resurface.

Season two, which launched in May, picks up right where season one left off. Deborah’s final performance in Vegas was a bust so she’s decided to create a whole new show. She and Ava hit the road to test her fresh material at small clubs, state fairs, and cruise ships. Deborah appears to be a kinder, gentler version of herself, but Ava lives in dread knowing that it’s only a matter of time before her email comes to light. “She’ll kill me,” she tells Jimmy. The two move heaven and Earth to make the email disappear but to no avail. Finally, Ava confesses, and Deborah blows up. Under duress, Ava reads the email to Deborah word-for-word. Deborah sues Ava for breaching her non-disclosure agreement. And, Ava swears off booze and her smart phone. But, the two continue working, joined by Deborah’s assistant Damian (Mark Indelicato), her CEO Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), her personal croupier Kiki (Poppy Liu), and for a brief period, her militaristic tour director “Weed” (the marvelous Laurie Metcalf, who — sadly — is pretty much wasted in a thankless role). All the while, Deborah and Ava are fine-tuning new material based on Deborah’s real-life, which has been — as expected and appropriately — larger-than-life.

With six episodes available and four more to be released in the coming weeks, Hacks moves into its sophomore season with nary a slump in sight. There are a number of elements that make Hacks work so well. First and foremost is Smart. Relating, no doubt, on a very personal level, she embraces every inch of her hard-earned fame. At the same time, she conveys the frustration knowing that a lifetime’s work can be erased at the whim of a Vegas strip resort owner. Based loosely on Joan Rivers, Deborah succeeded in a man’s world by being twice as smart and working ten times as hard.

Even with decades of celebrated television work behind her, Smart is well matched by relative newcomer Einbinder. Einbinder, who is the daughter of Saturday Night Live’s O.G. Laraine Newman, is herself a standup comedian but, surprisingly, Hacks is her first acting job. And, she doesn’t just hold her own, but shines.

The supporting cast, including the posse I mentioned above, as well as Rose Abdoo, Kaitlin Olson, Megan Stalter, and Christopher McDonald, is top-notch. And the premise of the road trip has expanded the Hacks setting from Vegas and L.A. last season, to Sedona, the Grand Canyon, and Memphis, not to mention a cruise ship filled with lesbians rather than gay men. “They don’t get me!” Deborah wails to Ava before crashing and burning onstage and being escorted off the ship in the open ocean, just as bisexual Ava was getting her groove on. Another clever schtick is the introduction of Ava’s dead father (well, half of him) cremated and stored in a tennis ball container. After he is lost and found, Ava decides to spread him gradually along their way since he never got to travel. It’s both funnier and more poignant than it sounds.

The writing is broad when it should be and quietly confident when it should be, and always clever. Basically, it lives up to the series’ premise: two exceptionally smart women, both very funny, and both utterly convinced that they know better than the other. What began last year as mutual hatred has mellowed into grudging admiration and reluctant fondness. Most of all, they push each other for better, sharper material, and when they hit the right note, they’re both thrilled.

“My bookkeeper stole three million dollars from me. Do you know what three million dollars is worth with inflation? Neither do I. That’s why I had a bookkeeper.”

 After such a promising first season, I was a bit worried that Hacks would lose momentum when it returned. So happy to report that Deborah and Ava still have places to go.

 Hacks is available on HBO Max with new episodes airing Thursdays.

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