Hacks is effortlessly good TV. HBO Max’s comedy series, now in its second season, is deftly built and always honest. It’s sharp, funny, and surprisingly profound when it wants to be, yet its emotional core is subtle enough that it can also pass as a simple–but excellent–May-December buddy comedy. It is, after all, that too. Hacks can clearly be anything it wants to be, and its stellar second season continues to prove as much.
The show teed up two great cliffhangers last season and picks them up immediately in the latest episodes. After their contentious working relationship finally gave way to a genuine partnership, young outcast comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) and wealthy, wrathful veteran comedian Deborah (Jean Smart) decided to reinvent the latter’s tired stand-up routine. Together, they refashioned it into something more honest and vulnerable, and in the new season, the pair take the burgeoning show on the road.
Unfortunately, Ava also sent some Hollywood execs a spiteful, potentially slanderous email about Deborah when she was loaded, and now the comedian’s life is set to serve as inspiration for a bitchy TV character. In the new season, the guilt over her betrayal hangs over Ava like a guillotine ready to drop. Deborah is a woman of creative retribution, and she can hold a grudge like she’s getting paid for it. That the pair quickly end up trapped in a claustrophobic tour bus for a series of cross-country comedy shows is a perfect set-up for maximum chaos.
While the show’s first season built its foundation on the crackling antagonistic energy between the duo, its second complicates their relationships further while also letting each grow on her own. At times, the pair have a bond like mother and daughter, but other times they seem both too similar and too different to ever do anything but hurt one another. Hacks, refreshingly, clearly loves both its leads, even and especially their unlovable parts. Its point of view is impressively prismatic, letting viewers see the women in every shade and from every angle.
On the one hand, Ava is an anxious whiner who holds the world to impossible standards, but on the other, she’s a principled young woman who cares deeply about being good and happy. Deborah can be vicious, callous, and self-centered, but her walls are clearly a defense built up against decades of sexism and mistreatment. The show lets both women be everything they want to be, and accomplishes this so well that it makes plenty of other sitcom characters feel one-note in comparison. If shows like Better Call Saul and Succession are dramas that are clearly informed by a deep understanding of psychology, power, and the human condition, Hacks may well be their (admittedly less bleak) comedy equivalent.
It’s also very, very funny. The new season sees Ava and Deborah’s agent, Jimmy (Paul W. Downs, who also co-created the show and has written and directed episodes) grow even more entangled in a hilariously convoluted HR nightmare with his nepotism hire assistant, Kayla (Megan Stalter). Every attempt Jimmy makes to circumnavigate her cheerful, oblivious advances seems to unlock a new layer of industry-specific hell. Though the show gets to explore a cross-section of America this season thanks to its tour plot, it’s in many ways about the particular self-imposed suffering of LA types. Jimmy, with his constant “just kill me” expressions and objectively cushy job, embodies the show’s gentle schadenfreude niche perfectly.
Much of the success of Hacks has to do with its dynamic writing, but the series would still be nothing without its leads. Smart and Einbinder deserve a spot in the on-screen odd couple hall of fame. Smart has been rightfully praised for her turn as Deborah, and it’s true that she nails the character’s mood shifts and hidden insecurities with a graceful and layered performance. But some of her best work is in response to Einbinder, who continues to be a flat-out revelation in the six season two episodes available for review. When keeping tabs on my own laughter during the new season, I realized the majority of it comes simply in response to Einbinder’s pitch-perfect line deliveries and Smart’s reaction to them.
Ava often balances on the knife’s edge of childhood immaturity and adult understanding, and Einbinder plays her with a perfect mix of childishness and cynicism. When she gathers up her belongings from the Las Vegas hotel she lived in last season, she tells the concierge she lost a Cadbury creme egg somewhere around there. “Do you ‘member it?” she asks him, like a kid on the playground playing tradesies. She also seeks out vegan options at rural rest stops, takes molly at inopportune times, and keeps her recently departed dad’s ashes in a tennis ball container.
Ava, by way of Einbinder, takes all the Gen Z stereotypes and turns them into something much richer. Together with Deborah, she continues to lead a cross-generational story that’s a lot more consequential than its simple premise might indicate. In its second season, Hacks is a generous, incisive, funny take on aging, but it’s a generous, incisive, and funny take on being young, too.