Hacks is a darkly hilarious love letter to the pain and toil of stand-up comedy

Hacks was far and away the best new show of 2021. The HBO dramedy’s freshman season navigated the burgeoning mentorship that forms between Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), a legendary but washed-up stand-up comedian, and an entitled Gen Z comedy writer named Ava (Hannah Einbinder), who is desperate for work after getting canceled for an insensitive joke on Twitter. The series didn’t just shrewdly explore the widening generational gap between what older and younger comedians think is funny (or appropriate) – it plunged you into the highs and lows of the stand up comedy scene as a whole. 

Unlike the surface level looks we got in terrible shows like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, or even good ones like The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselHacks was unafraid to pull away the curtain to reveal a world full of assholes, bullies, and martyrs – broken people who transmute their trauma and tragedies into belly laughs. This was the rare comedy that not only nails its punchlines, but brutally deconstructs the pain, effort, and genius it takes to make jokes land. Not only were the contrasting performances by Smart and Einbinder spectacular – this warts-and-all love letter to life in the comedy trenches also benefited from sharp writing by Jen Statsky, Paul W. Downs and Lucia Aniello (formerly of Broad City).

Amazingly, Hacks is now back for an even better second season! At the end of season one, a revitalized Deborah offers Ava the chance to go with her on the road to try out the new material the young woman has crafted for her. But is that necessarily going to make for a career resurgence for the aged comic? As co-showrunner Downs explained in an interview, ““What we were most interested in exploring was what it’s like for someone like her to keep bombing. It might be something novel and might be something exciting in the beginning, but someone like her who has fans that come to see her, and sells out a 2,000-seat theater in Vegas and crushes, what is it like when you’re on the road in small venues and not doing well? What does that do to your spirit, and what does that do to your relationship, and what does that do to your psyche?”

Deborah’s desperation to nail her new material is so honest. It’s a beautiful look at a successful woman reconciling how fame has shielded her from the pain of failure and the torture of self-reflection. Being out on the road, there’s new bravery in Deborah, of a woman slowly inching her way toward a life of authenticity as we see Deborah get increasingly frustrated with trying to articulate her traumas onstage in a way that won’t just bum everyone out. For years, she’s been queen of her own carefully curated domain, churning out her most reliable hits for an audience of devoted fans. In trying to push herself beyond her most basic punchlines, Deborah finds herself unmoored in a way she hasn’t been in decades, forcing her (and Smart) to step her game up even more. And of course, her defensive resistance breeds all the hilariously cutting jabs we’ve loved her for all along. 

On the flip side, Ava spends most of the second season in panic-mode, afraid that her betrayal in the season one finale might be revealed. At the end of last season, Ava drunkenly emailed some snotty British producers a list of Deborah’s biggest faults to use as material for their new TV show. Shaken and terrified that she might lose Deborah’s hard-earned trust and respect, Ava spends much of season two humbled and groveling at her employer’s feet. After devoting so much time deriding Deborah’s entire existence in the first season, Ava now wants nothing more than to impress and protect the legend as they go on the road together. This cloud of stress haunts Deborah and Ava’s dynamic this year. Though Deborah does eventually learn of Ava’s betrayal, it’s how they then continue on in the face of this reveal that is so profoundly fascinating. 

Seeing Deborah and Ava’s dynamic on the road offers a deliciously more volatile environment for their various neuroses and vices to erupt. Whereas in season one, Deborah was more or less always in safe, comfortable territory, out on the road she is vulnerable. Ava has her own vulnerabilities to contend with, grieving the loss of her father, not to mention she’s still one misstep away from being completely broke. Both women are rawer than we’ve ever seen them before. That emotionally dangerous state makes the comedy all the more deserved, dangerous, and satisfying. And having laid the groundwork for Deborah and Ava to become actual friends, this setback in their relationship feels even more heartbreaking. Once again, Hacks’ greatest strength continues to be the push and pull between this odd couple.

If this all sounds a bit heavier than usual, don’t worry – the beauty of Hacks has always been its ability to thread its darkest material with self-assured jokes. Whether in Vegas or on the road, Hacks knows exactly where to find its punchlines and when to trust its cast to deliver them with the singular deadpan — or, in the case of scene-stealer Meg Stalter as a hapless assistant, the singular unpredictability — that made it such a treat in the first place. The same goes for some of the show’s great guest stars, including returning cast members Downs (as Ava’s beleaguered agent), Carl Clemons-Hopkins (as Deborah’s manager who spins out after a break-up), Kaitlin Olson (as Deborah’s daughter), Poppy Liu (as Deborah’s on-demand Blackjack dealer) and Jane Adams (as Ava’s anxious mother). Joining the cast and immediately fitting right in are Martha Kelly (as a pleasant but useless HR rep), Ming Na Wen (as a terrifying rival agent) and, especially, Laurie Metcalf (as Deborah’s disarmingly blunt road manager).

Overall, Hacks season two is a higher-stakes, higher-reward season, emotionally. The journey of pairing such generationally divided comedians together is now given even more interesting obstacles to navigate. In stripping away so much of the familiar and keeping both Deborah and Ava in relentlessly vulnerable positions, we get to see them scramble to survive each other, the professional world, and their own opinions of themselves. 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. 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. And through it all – the show’s tightrope walk between comedy and tragedy, dark humor and devastating heart – remains perfectly balanced.

 

Rating: 8.5/10

Watch Hacks on HBO GO.