‘Hacks’ Review: Season 2 Is a Searingly Funny, Self-Reflective Road Trip with Both Leads in Top Gear

Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky's HBO Max comedy returns with strong laughs, significant soul-searching, and Jean Smart at the wheel.
Hacks Season 2 Jean Smart Hannah Einbinder HBO Max
Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder in "Hacks"
Karen Ballard / HBO Max

When “Hacks” first premiered — exactly 364 days prior to Season 2’s May 12 debut — the margin for error was incredibly narrow. Showbiz stories are tricky. Comedies about comedy are tricky. Casting a relative unknown as the co-lead next to an absolute legend risks a lopsided series that only clicks half the time… so yes: tricky, tricky, tricky (tricky). Yet “Hacks” confidently steered through all these roadblocks, becoming a cultural hit and immediate awards darling, just to up the ante again for Season 2. Not only are second seasons typically tougher than the first, but showrunners Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky were tasked with turning around eight new episodes in less than a year. (Thus is the price paid for success at a nascent streaming service: Season 2 had to hit in time for Emmy consideration and fast enough to keep subscribers hooked on HBO Max.)

Well, set your worries aside because “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. 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.

Picking up right where last year’s finale left off, “Hacks” finds Deborah and Ava returning to Las Vegas from the young writer’s hometown, where they’d both been paying their respects at her father’s funeral. But despite patching up their relationship in Boston, a secret the size of a wrecking ball still hangs in wait. Ava, after being slapped and belittled by Deborah, got drunk and high and sent a lengthy email to the TV producers she interviewed with in L.A. — producers who are working on a series titled “Bitch P.M.,” about a particularly unpleasant prime minister. In said email, Ava explained how Deborah’s behavior reflected that of the titular character by listing numerous real-life examples of Deborah acting like more of a B than a P.M. Now that they’ve made up, Ava wants to take it all back, but there’s no un-send button on days-old emails, just as there’s no way to erase sordid personal details about famous folks from people’s brains.

Aniello, Downs, and Statsky wisely don’t let Ava’s mistake take over the season. Less urgent, engaging shows may have been happy letting the secret percolate under every episode, adding tension to scene after scene until it finally comes spilling out in the finale. Not only would that cycle have worn out its welcome fast, it would’ve been dishonest to Ava and “Hacks” alike. Ava has made headway with Deborah’s act by pushing her to be more truthful on stage, just as she’s made inroads with Deborah personally by providing honest feedback and putting in honest work. The series is similarly active and earnest, asking audiences to invest in the comedy duo’s success almost as much as they invest in their lives. Keeping a barrier between them for too long would’ve created an unwelcome and unsustainable gap. Tearing that barrier down, meanwhile, sparks one of the best scenes of TV this year — and it hits within the season’s first hour.

This moment and so many more emphasize the talents driving “Hacks.” Aniello’s Emmy-winning direction makes great use of space and color, while compiling a propulsive rhythm within episodes and between them. Downs and Statsky set the pace with tight, savvy scripts loaded with rich opportunities for Smart and Einbinder to thrive. The former (rightly) won her fourth Emmy for playing Deborah Vance, while the latter (also rightly) landed her first nomination as Ava — a huge relief given some of the misguided discourse surrounding her character.

Hacks Season 2 Poppy Liu Hannah Einbinder Kaitlin Olson HBO Max
Poppy Liu, Hannah Einbinder, and Kaitlin Olson in “Hacks”Karen Ballard / HBO Max

During an early exchange in Season 2, a casual acquaintance tells Ava she’s “always been pretty entitled and annoying.” Her response: “I hear that brother. Like, a lot.” On first listen, it doesn’t really play as a meta moment, but it sure could. Ava is entitled, especially in Season 1, and she can be annoying to Deborah as a result. But that’s the point. Her aggressively P.C. demeanor routinely draws Deborah’s ire, just as Deborah’s wasteful indulgences rankle Ava. Moreover, Ava sees the considerable effort Deborah puts in to her comedy and learns from it, just as Deborah sees the talented, fresh perspective in Ava’s writing and learns from that. They are both entitled and annoying in their own ways, but that’s exactly what bonds them and builds them up.

Season 1 may have leaned a little too hard into Ava’s privilege at times, but Einbinder, already a star to watch, continues to elicit empathy as often as she nails punchlines. (In Episode 3, she puts on an excellent run of physical comedy.) Season 2 also dials back on her character’s callow mishaps. In response to Ava’s latest intoxicated faux pas, she cuts down on alcohol and drugs. She rededicates herself to Deborah’s new routine, and she’s still working through the sudden loss of her dad. Deborah is also more vulnerable. Trying out unproven material after a lifetime of playing the hits is a challenge, and she bends to its intimidation from time to time. (Though her ferocious approach to life is brilliantly showcased in the premiere episode’s climactic moment.) In telling stories about her past on stage, Deborah has to reexamine choices she made and those thrust upon her. She comes to a better understanding of herself, and it’s moving to be along for the ride.

Throughout Season 2, how the showrunners find ways for Deborah and Ava to mirror each other while remaining true to their individual spirits is an impressive feat — and the fact that they’re also this funny is pretty much a miracle. The few hiccups involve how the supporting cast contributes, but in a shortened season, someone is bound to be sidelined. There’s a lot more of Megan Stalter’s inept assistant Kayla and not enough of Poppy Liu’s singular blackjack dealer, Kiki. Carl Clemons-Hopkins’ Marcus gets a solid arc, though it’s fairly one-note compared to last year’s more sprawling introduction. These minor speed-bumps only come to mind because “Hacks” continues to make the arduous look effortless. Season 2 hums along in such a smooth, pleasurable manner that you want more of everything, which is both an unfair demand and an encouraging reminder of how valuable “Hacks” has become. Here’s hoping they can keep it up for 100 more episodes, the bare minimum needed to appreciate a series of endless wonders.

Grade: A-

“Hacks” Season 2 premieres with two episodes Thursday, May 12 on HBO Max. Two episodes will be released each week through June 2.

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