Two new episodes of Hacks’ second season drop today on HBO Max, and one of them has a scene that distills the show’s essence.
In “Retired,” we see Ava (Hannah Einbinder) and Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) killing time at a county fair where Deborah (Jean Smart) is doing a stand-up set. They sit for a caricature portrait, and when the artist assumes they’re dating, they go along with it. (Marcus is gay, but why sweat the details?) They tell him the truth, though, when he asks about hobbies he might represent in the drawing. Ava says when she wants to have fun, she keeps working, and Marcus, clearly proud of himself, says, “I own and manage several rental properties.”
But instead of drawing Marcus at an Airbnb, the artist depicts him proposing to Ava with a giant diamond ring.
And of course, they love it. How could a drawing be more ridiculous? Later on, they give Deborah the drawing as a gift, and she loves it, too. It’s a reminder that on Hacks, the idea of having a life outside of your job is always kind of funny.
That’s not to say that the show idealizes its workaholic characters. In the same episode, Deborah is reminded that her daughter got a concussion after sneaking booze and then falling backstage at one of her mother’s shows. Marcus acknowledges that his career cost him his relationship with his ex-boyfriend WIlson (Johnny Sibilly), and Ava doesn’t even pretend to have meaningful connections with people outside of Deborah’s empire.
But so far, at least, the show isn’t denigrating these choices. That’s certainly not the norm in this genre. On a series like Veep, the comedy is rooted in how everyone’s lust for power makes them mercenary narcissists, and we can laugh at their frenzied mistreatment of one another in their pursuit of their career goals. On The Office, the characters who take their jobs too seriously are the biggest clowns, and on almost every workplace comedy in existence, from Cheers to Parks and Recreation to Showtime’s excellent I Love That For You, the heroes eventually realize that work is less important than the friends we make along the way.
On Hacks, however, work really is the reason to keep going. Yes, Deborah, Ava, and Marcus have lost things because of their commitment to their jobs, but the show emphasizes how much they’ve gained. Deborah and Ava are closer than Deborah is with her own daughter or Ava is with her own mother. Marcus laughs more with his colleagues than with the friends he tries to cultivate after his breakup. For these people, the series says, life makes the most sense when they stop fighting who they are and just hurl themselves into their jobs.
And that’s crucial. As others have noted, these folks don't really have a back-up plan for their lives, and the show is generous enough to let things work out for them anyway. By letting its characters to evolve from within their careers, Hacks offers a perspective that sets it apart from most workplace comedies. Everyone really is changing for the better, even if they aren't changing their work-life balance, and it's incredibly rewarding to watch.
The first two episodes of Hacks Season 2 are now streaming on HBO Max. New episodes drop Thursdays through June 2.
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Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.