It’s hard to top the first season of Hacks, HBO Max’s acerbically funny series about two women (one Gen-Z, one boomer) navigating the male-dominated world of standup comedy. With a singular blend of caustic humor, incisive social commentary, and heartbreaking pathos—not to mention a lead, Jean Smart, in the role of her career—it rightfully nabbed three Emmys last year.
But much like Smart’s Deborah Vance, Hacks is upping its game with its second go-round, in which creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky take their show on the road as Deborah and her beleaguered joke writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) embark on a cross-country trip for Deborah to workshop her new act. In episode one, “There Will Be Blood,” the series picks up right where we left off: After Deborah slapped Ava across the face, the latter got smashed and sent an email revealing all of her mentor’s dark secrets to a pair of writers working on a TV series about a nightmarish female boss. The two may have reconciled after the death of Ava’s father, but that damning email is still somewhere in the ether, hanging over their relationship like an axe.
Meanwhile, some wonderful side characters embark on their own journeys: Deborah’s assistant, Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), is spiraling after a breakup; the weird relationship between Deborah and Ava’s manager, Jimmy (Downs), and his assistant, Kayla (the chaotically funny Megan Stalter), hits new lows; Deborah’s daughter, DJ (Kaitlin Olson), continues her quest for her mother’s approval; and Jane Adams crashes as Ava’s mother, Nina. (Also: Let’s give a shoutout to Poppy Liu, who lights up the room as Kiki, Deborah’s blackjack dealer.)
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Hacks is that it turns the spotlight on one of scripted television’s most slighted demographics: older women. Of course, there’s Deborah herself, who (like her real-life inspiration, Joan Rivers) refuses to bow out in a culture that prefers to render any woman over the age of 50 all but invisible. She’s played brilliantly by Smart, who conveys just how Deborah’s brazen-bully outer shell can crack, revealing the sadness and insecurity beneath it. (In an industry that’s cruel to women of any age, let alone septuagenarians, she’s hanging on by the skin of her razor-sharp teeth and doing her damnedest not to let it show.) But season two also brings in top-shelf character actors who we’re always glad to see: Laurie Metcalf, who plays Alice, a.k.a. “Weed,” the gang’s no-nonsense tour manager, and Harriet Harris, who portrays Susan, a former standup whose career Deborah fears she ruined.
As with the first season, the ice-cold, fire-warm heart and soul of Hacks lies in the relationship between Deborah and Ava. They’re both prickly at best, amoral at worst, the kind of “difficult women” who have to fight tooth and nail for their place in the industry, unafraid to play dirty. While rounded and fully fleshed-out characters, they’re also the perfect parodies of their respective generations: Deborah can’t resist a sale at Lord & Taylor and hasn’t the slightest clue about how to put a new contact in her phone. Meanwhile, the performative Ava is woke almost by reflex and feels entitled to a rung on the Hollywood ladder despite routinely fucking up her chances.
Their push-and-pull, evoked with equal parts dry wit and brittle emotion by Smart and Einbinder, makes for one of the most fascinating dynamics happening on TV right now. Deborah acts as a mother, tormenter, friend, and mentor to Ava; at times, their relationship takes on an almost romantic vibe. These women, it seems, despise each other almost as much as they love each other.
Deborah can be cartoonishly cruel to Ava. In a perfect bit of slapstick, she forces the younger woman to sleep in a coffin-like bunkbed on the tour bus, hemmed in by an antique dresser Deborah picked up at a yard sale. But in the same breath, she’ll be empathetic in a way no one else is in Ava’s life. Ava, in turn, saves Deborah from herself at her lowest moments. “Nothing matters more,” she says of Deborah’s stubborn commitment to her career, “even if it should.”
Though season one’s Vegas environs were for the writers to let their characters cut loose, the second season’s road-trip format gives them a whole new playground, whether it’s Ava sowing her bisexual oats on a lesbian leisure cruise, or Deborah doing a set at a Midwest state fair that’s upstaged by a calf birth. It also crams Hack’s prickly ensemble inside one small tour bus, a hilarious contrast to Deborah’s sprawling mansion from last season.
This installment of Hacks is also, surprisingly, sweeter than the last, as our motley crew finds common ground in the most unlikely places. Luckily, though, it doesn’t detract from those cutting lines we love. (“Oh, I don’t think Luna’s going to be funny,” Kiki says of her young daughter. “She’s really comfortable with herself.”)
Hacks is really a study in how hard it is grow as a person in a world that’s constantly trying to make you smaller, whether you’re an aging star, a hungry young writer, a queer Black man, or a wife in mourning. For each step forward, there are five steps backwards. But the striving is a joy to behold.