Better (A Little) Late Than Never: Hacks Season 2 Review
Last June, after seeing the first two episodes of HBO Max’s comedy series Hacks, I wrote one of the most misguided reviews in the history of my career. I said that the series only worked because of the extraordinary performance of Jean Smart as Deborah Vance, a stand-up comic who has been coasting on her legend and won’t write new material. I said that the performance of Hannah Einbinder as Ava, the Gen-Z comedienne desperate for employment, oozed entitlement from the beginning and had no depth to it. I said the comedy that both Ava and Hannah represented wasn’t particularly funny; that the idea of a relationship between Deb and Ava was never going to work and that the series was overrated.
Well, after that review I stuck around and watched the entire series, more out of a sense of obligation because of the large number of award nominations that came its way. And a funny thing happened. The more episodes I watched, the more brilliant it became. Einbinder’s performance as Ava slowly but surely evolved until halfway through the series I was devoted to the friendship. By the time I finished the season, I thought Einbinder more than deserved the nomination she got for Supporting Actress and my overall impression of Hacks was so elated that I ranked it Number 3 on my top ten list for 2021. Going in Hacks seemed like another one of those rituals I put myself through every summer when I watch Emmy nominated series for my column that I inevitably dislike. When it was over, I couldn’t wait for Season 2 to finally drop, which it did in May. It took me longer than usual to start watching it (I have a very long backlog) but I’ve gotten through the first three episodes. And if there’s been any sign of the sophomore slump, I haven’t seen it.
Season 1 ended when it was revealed that Ava had drunkenly sent a vengeful email to a sitcom she’d auditioned for about a horrible boss in which she told some of the most brutal details of Deb’s life. Deb has been reeling from her horrible final performance at her residence in Vegas and her determination to rebuild and go on a tour. Ava, racked with guilt, finally confessed her betrayal to Deb in the second episode, and in one of the most wrenching moments in the series so far, Deb made her read this email to her at a diner. Einbinder gave a performance truly worthy of an Emmy right there, with the increasing strain in her voice, finally breaking down in tears. The episode seemed to end with a measure of forgiveness — but of course, Deb has now decided to sue Ava for violating her NDA. I don’t know much of this is for real or how much of this is just Deb torturing the people who work for her (we know enough about her to know that’s something she does) but it adds yet another layer to the bizarre dynamic between them.
The most recent episode involved the start of the tour in one of the most elaborate buses you’ve probably seen in TV history and one of the most twist tour leaders you’ll ever meet. (Laurie Metcalf instantly puts herself on the list for a Guest Actress in a Comedy series in pretty much the opening scene.) Ava is trying everything she can to get back in Deb’s good graces, and Deb seems utterly determined to torture her. In one scene at a gig, she says hello to a comic around Deb’s age, treats her like a peer, and then sends Ava to get ice water for them. The second Ava is gone, Deb dismisses her as coldly as everyone else she has no use for when she’s done with them. Not even Ava is sure why she hasn’t been fired yet, but it’s pretty clear there is a bond between these two women that neither can deny. When the container holding her father’s ashes (he died at the end of last season) is discarded by Weed and she refuses to stop the tour to accommodate the unraveling Ava, Deb commands her to stop and finally climbs into a dumpster to help find the ashes. Deb clearly has a heart and these two women, despite everything truly care for each other; they just have a very twisted way of showing it. Deb’s last line of the episode to Ava clearly demonstrates that.
If it were just for the exceptional relationship between the two female leads, Hacks would be an astonishing series. But over the course of the first season and throughout the second, many of the supporting players around their orbit have come into their own. Kaitlin Olson who plays Deb’s in-and-out of rehab daughter, is always delightful to watch. Currently married to an MMA fighter, her attitude in calling herself ‘a military wife’ is rollickingly hysterical. Series co-creator Paul W. Downs has created an incredible role for himself as Jimmy, the eternally put-upon agent of both Deb and Ava, who has the worlds most incompetent and sexually inappropriate assistant (Megan Stalter steals every scene she’s in) whose life just seems to get worse no matter how hard he tries to make things better. I’ve seen a lot less than I had hoped so far this year of Marcus (last year’s most delightful surprise Emmy nominee Carl Clemons-Hopkins) Deb’s most loyal aide, who ended his relationship in favor of a bigger career, but he’s still a small treasure every time we see him. I hope he finds happiness.
Apparently many viewers were delighted when it was announced that Hacks would be brought back for a third season as it seems that this one ended on a note that seemed to wrap it up. If it had been the last one, I would have utterly appalled — something I couldn’t imagine myself being when I had to force myself to watch Season 1 last year. I don’t know how long the creators of Hacks plan to keep the show going, but I find myself hoping that, like the legendary Deb Vance, they can find a way to keep it going as long as possible, despite all the odds. This is one of the funniest — and honestly, the sweetest — of the comedy series on today. Some might argue that the fact that Deb and Ava’s relationship — a Baby Boomer and a millennial — could serve as a model for hope for our future. I just prefer to see it as a perfect blending of an odd couple that need each other and make us laugh as they try endlessly to work in the complicated art of comedy.
My score: 4.75 stars.