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Hacks Season 2 features some pretty impressive threading of the needle

  • Hacks creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky's acclaimed comedy's Season 1 finale left some trepidation that it would undermine Deborah and Ava's dynamic in Season 2. But the events of the Season 1 finale instead makes their relationship richer and even more complicated, says Alan Sepinwall. "If anything, Season Two leans even more into the series’ strengths," says Sepinwall. "Having lost her casino residency, Deborah is eager to hit the road immediately to try out the new, more confessional material she and Ava have worked on together. So after a quick pit stop in Vegas — which allows Jean Smart to deliver a classic sports-movie speech at an MMA fight featuring the new husband of her daughter DJ (Kaitlin Olson) — Deborah and Ava begin traveling the country together, first in Deborah’s car, and then on her tricked-out tour bus. There is no getting away for Ava, or for Deborah, and the close quarters force them to keep working through their issues. It’s a smart embrace of the core concept, even if it comes at the expense of the show’s supporting cast."


    • Hacks Season 2 starts out like a series that lost its keys and can’t remember where it left them: "The show and its central creative team, creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky, slowly get their rhythm back as each episode progresses, and (Jean) Smart and (Hannah) Einbinder still have an energetic rapport that’s fun to watch," says Jen Chaney. "But especially in the first couple of installments — HBO provided six out of the eight that will roll out two per week starting today — there’s a fair amount of trying too hard, and it is indeed awkward. Some scenes last a beat longer than they should, as if they’re holding for more laughs than they’ve earned. Others, particularly those involving secondary characters like Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), the CEO of Deborah’s business, and Jimmy (Downs), Deborah’s and Ava’s agent, have little reason to exist at all. Where narrative focus and sharp dialogue were hallmarks of season one, season two sometimes feels aimless and unsure of the underlying points it’s trying to make. If season one hadn’t set such a high bar, these issues might not be quite as striking. But it did, and they are."
    • Hacks is firing on all cylinders in Season 2: "The Emmy-winning Smart carried the show’s first season with her slippery charisma, coiled-and-ready-to-strike pain and delightfully unpredictable line readings," says Inkoo Kang. "It’s a joy to see the rest of the series catch up with her munificent excellence in its sophomore year. The writing is funnier and more poignant, the ensemble has gelled and the tonal jaggedness that plagued the previous season has been smoothed out. With Smart never better, the first six episodes (of eight total) find the show firing on all cylinders. It’s exactly what you’d hope from any sophomore season. Its success is in no small part due to the road-trip setup, which puts Deborah and Ava in ever-new situations and forces them to reveal hidden facets of themselves — at rest stops, yard sales and punishingly beige psychic offices."
    • Hacks is a reminder that all comedies should be meaner: "Some comedies are better off being mean. Hacks, the HBO Max series about aging comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and her unlikely partnership with Ava (Hannah Einbinder), her reluctant millennial joke writer, is a prime example of this; a comedy about two women who strongly dislike each other yet are forced by circumstance to work together," says Joshua Rivera. "This resulted in a steady stream of jokes: Deborah would effortlessly roast Ava, and Ava would sputter and flail while trying to update Deborah’s outdated feminism in vain. In locking horns, the pair would individually ponder ideas of progress, and how their culture has continued to fail women in much the same ways Deborah was familiar with, in spite of Ava’s wider feminist lexicon. This tension made Hacks compelling, and it’s always in danger of collapsing for a very simple and understandable reason: It all falls apart if the two leads start to like each other too much. 'Meanness' in this context is a source of tension, which all comedies need to survive."
    • Season 2 is still as cutting and engaging as ever, building steam throughout: "Smart and Einbinder's onscreen dynamic was unquestionably the highlight of Season 1, and it's no surprise that it remains compelling in Season 2," says Belen Edwards. "By the end of Hacks' first season, Deborah and Ava figured out that they can work well together. Now the root of their conflict shifts, focusing more on the threat of Deborah discovering Ava's betrayal. It's not quite as powerful as the clash of personalities that made Hacks' first season such fun, but Aniello, Downs, and Statsky continue to mine Deborah and Ava's differences — and similarities — for gold. Some things haven't changed: Deborah still roasts Ava's fashion and hands, while Ava takes every chance she gets to grandstand in the name of social causes. However, these moments now feel less hostile and more like good-natured ribbing."
    • Season 2 underwhelms a little: "The show still attempts to critique the fame machine, but both seasons continue to revel too much in the material pleasures that come from making it, so that rather than offer commentary on the industry it merely offers insider knowledge," says Marya E. Gates. "Like Ava’s surface-level feminism throughout the series and her inability to follow through on her Gen-Z idealism, Hacks aims to examine the brutal side of the entertainment world it inhabits but fails to fully commit to a deeper criticism of it."
    • Season 2 aims higher and deeper, expanding the dynamic between Ava and Deborah while keeping both the wit and pathos largely intact: "In taking Deborah and Ava out on the road, series creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky offer the characters a change of scenery—and a recalibration," says Jessica Derschowitz. "Their rapport is the show’s central, electric nerve, but in the six episodes available for review, the playing field they’re on is shifting. Deborah, now firmly outside her Vegas comfort zone and the stand-up style she’d relied on for decades, has to confront her comedy and herself in a way she couldn’t (or wasn’t willing to) before, while Ava is grappling with the aftermath of her recklessness. Barbs are still their love language of choice, but there’s also a growing respect for one another, measures of friendship and mutual understanding coloring their professional and personal relationships."
    • Hacks remains just on the edge of something truly great in Season 2: In Season 1, "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," says Daniel Fienberg. "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." He adds: "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."
    • Hacks avoids typical Season 2 stumbles: "Hacks really puts Ava through the wringer; the third episode sees her run an emotional gauntlet that would devastate most people, and Einbinder is riveting the whole time," says Danette Chavez. "The tension dissipates as quickly as it builds, often unexpectedly, and always to hilarious or affecting results. Aniello, Downs, and Statsky show a masterful grasp of their series’ rhythms, its cadences — not just timing or pacing or leavening a moment with humor, but in sometimes just letting their characters and actors be. (That might sound like TV Producing 101, but just consider all the shows out there that lose steam before the halfway point, or that give the sense of five simultaneous conversations that no one’s actually paying attention to.) They understand their series as a whole, and in their hands, Hacks almost becomes a living, breathing thing."
    • Hacks has done it again: "Season 2 leans into its established strengths — the relationship between Deborah (Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder) grows deeper, the performances are more lived in, the dialogue remains as clever as it is unexpected — while recognizing new opportunities," says Ben Travers. "As promised in the waning moments of Season 1, the majority of Season 2 hits the road for a nationwide comedy tour. The team’s deluxe RV (emblazoned with a bright pink 'DV' and sporting an elegant interior that lives up to its brand as Deborah’s Vehicle) bottles the cast’s electric chemistry in the same room, while life on the road opens the story to fresh settings, exciting guest pop-ins (Laurie Metcalf!), and genuine spontaneity. The show’s follow-up entry literally covers fresh ground, not only by cruising over it, but by embracing the most enticing aspects of a long haul: big laughs with close friends, meaningful self-reflection, and a trusty leader in the captain’s chair — well, two trusty leaders, really."
    • The focus of Hacks Season 2, as always, is on the push and pull of Deborah and Ava’s relationship: "The duo still prefers to communicate via scathing punchlines, but now there is less an air of competition between them than a measure of respect," says Meghan O'Keefe. "Deborah has to confront her demons on the road, while Ava is grappling with grief and shame. Hacks cleverly lets the women flit between cruelty and kindness is a way that continues to ring true. The show’s second season is also refreshingly more interested in how much Ava and Deborah are alike, as opposed to different (which is where Season 1 started)."
    • Hacks' most enduring strength is its directing: "Honed so brilliantly by Aniello, from some of the best Broad City episodes until her Hacks Emmy win, it finds surreal and beautiful moments no matter the circumstance," says Caroline Framke. "And looking back, it’s the show’s finely framed images that stand out most. From Ava dancing on the deck of a lesbian cruise and Marcus rocking on his heels at the veterinarian, to Deborah screaming in triumph while covered in (someone else’s) blood, the camera always keeps a steady focus on the crux of Hacks, a comedy truly unto itself."
    • Season 2 is about the journey, not the destination: "The first six episodes of Hacks’ second season are very much a middle act, with plenty going on, but no concrete resolutions," says Clare Martin. "And that’s perfectly okay; these characters are well-established and enjoyable enough that it’s fun to simply hit the road with Deborah, Ava, and Marcus."
    • Hacks launches The Official Hacks Podcast hosted by creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky
    • How did Hacks approach Season 2 differently from Season 1?: "We knew that we were going on the road and that Deborah was going to be taken out of her bubble and her fortress that she’s created for herself in the desert," says Lucia Aniello. "And the reason she’s lived in Vegas is that she was a bit walled off from the rest of the world and their criticisms. But we knew innately by putting her on the road and keeping her away from her creature comforts that it would give us a different Deborah to write. For Ava, we knew that she would be so worried about this email, and we wanted it to be more than just a plot device about an email. We really want to get to put Ava’s story and her character on this path of redeeming herself to Deborah. That was also very fresh for us." Paul W. Downs adds: They’ve obviously developed an intimacy over the course of the season, but they also have this dynamic of love-hate, dark mentorship. We wanted to be able to reset the dynamic. Having something like this [email] allowed us to give Deborah a bit of real estate to rib Ava and something to hold over her head so that they could have that dynamic again without it just being buddy-buddy. Also, we hope that putting them on the road together in this confined space in the middle of nowhere, allowed us to deepen the relationship. What doesn’t kill them makes them stronger by the end of Season 2."
    • How did Ava's large hands become a running joke?: "We cast Hannah after the show had been written, and that joke was written early on as part of the nightmare boss, Deborah, torturing this employee," says Jen Statsky. "We were like, 'She should make fun of her hands for being huge.' We did at a certain point say to Hannah like, 'Just so you know, this was before you signed on, this isn’t something we noticed.'" Downs adds: "Well, Hannah being like, 'Did you write this because of my hand size?' We were like, 'No, you have big hands?' And she was like, 'I have notoriously big hands, and also here’s a photo of me as a teen.' And there’s a photo we use in the (Season 1) finale where her hand is comically large looking, but it’s not Photoshop, it’s truly just alien. It’s like that awkward phase when parts of you are growing, and her hands grew first. And we actually ended up using it in the show."
    • Hacks' attention to detail helps give the showrunners more ways to squeeze the maximum amount of comedy out of any given scene: “We’re just always trying to, whether it’s even in production design or costumes or a prop, any time we can add another layer to it, we always do,” says Aniello. “That’s part of why we are very exacting in the prep part of it, because you never know when you’re going to get one more layer of comedy, or, honestly, a moment that says something about a character, from their hat, or their purse, or the prop they pick up, or the kind of car they drive. All of these things add up to a person. For us, we’re always looking to try to say something with any little moment we can on screen.”
    • Jean Smart calls Season 2's crop of big-name guest-stars "an embarrassment of riches": “It was really nice because apparently people are asking to be on the show,” says Smart. “It’s not like they had to go beg people, which is always a really nice feeling. I’ve worked with Laurie (Metcalf) before. In fact, we have the same agent. I love her. She’s fantastic. She’s a brilliant actress.”
    • Hannah Einbinder admits feeling "a tremendous amount of pressure" heading into Season 2: "Since it came out, season one, there has been this whirlwind of this world that is, like, very new to me," she explains. "And all of these various elements of the business that are separate from the work itself. And so, all of that swirling around my head before the second season, I was like, 'Whoa, whoa!'"

    TOPICS: Hacks, HBO Max, Hannah Einbinder, Jean Smart, Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs