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When HBO Max’s Hacks premiered to extremely positive reviews one year ago, most of the early excitement boiled down to non-controversial assessments like, “Jean Smart is a divine force of acting greatness, and although we are not worthy to inhale the same oxygen as her, we must treasure these 10 weeks of simultaneous occupancy on this floating blue and green orb we call the Earth.”
And, I mean, where’s the lie?
Airdate: Thursday, May 12 (HBO Max)
Cast: Jean Smart, Hannah Einbinder, Carl Clemons-Hopkins
Creators: Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky
The concentration on Smart’s indisputable greatness became a minor distraction from more holistic analyses of Hacks that could acknowledge that, for probably the first few episodes, the series was decent but maybe not completely at Smart’s level — and that after the midway point in the season, Hacks became a better show overall for being more of an ensemble, albeit one with Smart as first among not-quite-equals.
The second Hacks season finds the show qualitatively picking up where it left off, now fully aware of all of the exceptional moving pieces at its disposal — but still not necessarily fully prepared to get value out of all of those pieces. This comic examination of female friendship and mentorship remains just on the edge of something truly great.
Narratively, Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky’s series picks up where it left off as well. Even after bombing in her final Las Vegas performance, comedy legend Deborah Vance (Smart) is creatively reinvigorated and ready to hit the road testing her new material, with Ava (Hannah Einbinder) along for the ride, despite her abnormally large hands. Ava, carrying around her father’s ashes in a tennis ball can, is also beyond nervous that Deborah will learn about the email she drunkenly sent the TV producers last season unloading all of her (completely accurate) feelings and stories about Deborah.
Ava, Deborah and Deborah’s personal assistant Damien (Mark Indelicato) embark on an ambitious tour, overseen by savvy veteran Weed (a predictably excellent Laurie Metcalf), aboard a souped-up tour bus. This leaves Carl Clemons-Hopkins’ Marcus managing Deborah’s business interests and personal chaos back in Las Vegas, with Jimmy (Downs) and assistant Kayla (Megan Stalter) handling her professional interests in Los Angeles.
One thing Hacks has already established its ability to do interestingly, if not always smoothly, is set itself up for contrived drama and then avoid dragging out the contrivance. So if you rolled your eyes at Deborah’s perplexingly feigned outrage at Ava taking a simple job interview last season (or Ava’s needless decision to keep that interview a secret) or at the cliffhanger relating to Ava’s incriminating email, there’s some solace in knowing that characters on Hacks mostly don’t prolong gratuitous secret-keeping or grudges.
The well-drawn personality types present regular opportunities for friction, generational conflict and the sort of sharp dialogue that keeps Hacks entertaining. At some point, the writers will surely have the confidence to let that steer the story a bit more, rather than an over-reliance on “What’s gonna happen when [insert character] finds out about [insert thing that didn’t need to be a secret]?” hijinks.
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, plus a steady stream of opportunities for regional humor and on-the-road laughs. And the tour does, indeed, yield a lot of good stuff and consistently fresh situations, from state fairs to a standout episode on a gay cruise that isn’t the type of gay cruise Deborah is expecting.
At the same time, though, having Las Vegas as a home base gave Hacks an interesting and frequently fresh sense of place and replacing that with a string of generic flyover locations is moderately diminishing. Then again, how many viewers were watching Hacks for its grounded treatment of Las Vegas’ glitzy underbelly?
Smart was, and remains, the primary reason people are turning in and, as is the case with most of the show’s characters, the writers have a very good sense of Deborah’s flaws and strengths, and have given their universally beloved star an expanded range of registers. Deborah sings, she has a steamy sexual relationship and she continues to dig deeper into the things she did as a young comic to succeed in a male-dominated profession. Smart equally underlines Deborah’s most appealing and unlikable traits and will, of course, be back at the top of every best actress awards field for a season about a female comic finding a new voice on and off the stage that is, on every level, handled with more consideration and less schtick than the most recent season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Nobody has ever needed to work hard to showcase Smart’s strengths, but the writers had to learn through the first season what the relatively inexperienced Einbinder can do. “Falling” remains, for me, the pivotal episode of the first season in showing Ava’s vulnerability and self-destructive tendencies, and making her more than just another millennial/Gen-Z funny person allegedly “canceled” for an ill-considered tweet, which was where the show started. The second season makes more use of Einbinder’s physical awkwardness and makes more sense of the repetition compulsion that forces Ava to stay with Deborah.
And, in turn, the second season understands that Hacks is a better show as a true two-hander — Einbinder keeps being miscategorized as “supporting” for awards purposes — than as a glorified one-woman show for Smart.
Figuring out how to utilize the rest of the cast isn’t always as consistent, starting with surprise Emmy nominee Clemons-Hopkins, who is adrift for a while before getting some of their best material in the last two of six episodes sent to critics.
Aware that the Jimmy-Kayla dynamic was a favorite for some viewers, Hacks continues reaching to find different ways to keep Downs and Stalter around (or keep Downs around in front of the camera, since he’s a regular co-writer and frequent director). So there’s more of Jimmy and Kayla this season and their storylines bring in always-welcome guest stars including Ming-Na Wen and Martha Kelly, but those scenes generally feel like auditions for a spinoff.
The same is true with efforts to shoehorn scene-stealers Poppy Liu, as freelance blackjack dealer Kiki, and Kaitlin Olson, as Deborah’s daughter DJ, into the main story, and to contrive to bring back performers like Luenell, Jane Adams and Christopher McDonald.
Hacks continues to expand its world. It isn’t just the Jean Smart show and it isn’t just an examination of cancel culture or a portrait of a Joan Rivers avatar. There are plenty of little reasons why the second season of Hacks doesn’t take a leap from very good-ness to greatness, but plenty of big reasons why that isn’t really a problem.
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