Jean Smart ran away with awards season last year for her performance in HBO Max’s breakout comedy “Hacks,” winning the triple crown of best actress in a comedy at the Screen Actors Guild, Golden Globe, and Emmys awards. With tough-as-brass Deborah Vance, a legendary stand-up comedian fighting to stay relevant and keep her Las Vegas residency, Smart and series co-creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky explored the thorny road pioneering women in the entertainment industry travel. Contrasting Deborah during season one was recently canceled Gen-Z comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder), who on the suggestion of their shared agent Jimmy (Downs), was hired to punch up Deborah’s material. The poignancy of the first season was largely found in the way the two women reflected each other’s faults and their greatest strengths. Season two continues to explore this strained dynamic, however with far less success.
When we last saw the pair, after Deborah slapped her in the face, a drugged up Ava sent a potboiler email outlining all of her employer’s abusive behavior (and other dirty laundry) to a couple of British writers (Chris Geere and Kirby Howell-Baptiste) developing a show about a “crazy” female boss in the name of feminism. Just after sending the email however, Deborah and Ava patch things up at Ava’s father’s funeral. The season ended with the two aboard Vance’s private jet heading back to Las Vegas to work on Deborah’s new show. The first episode of season two begins mid-flight, Deborah still unaware of Ava’s betrayal.
In the six episodes of the eight-episode season provided for critics to review, tension rises for Ava as she and Jimmy attempt to fix her blunder before Deborah learns of it. Their love-hate relationship continues as the two take Deborah’s new material on the road. This road trip format gives the show more scenic breathing room than season one, which mostly stuck to the Las Vegas Strip and L.A., and also allows for the introduction of new supporting and guest characters. Laurie Metcalf is a hoot as a road manager named Weed and Harriet Sansom Harris turns in a bittersweet performance as a one-time revival who gave up comedy to raise a family.
These additions are wonderful, however as the season progresses the supporting characters from the first season are neglected. While Deborah’s relationship with her estranged daughter DJ (Kaitlin Olson) gets a bit more time, Mark Indelicato remains underused as her personal assistant Damien, whose only lines are sassy insults. Equally underused is Kiki (a wonderfully nutty Poppy Liu), her blackjack dealer and Ava’s only friend. Liu brings such a unique energy to any scene that you can feel the void for the long stretches she’s absent. Worst of all, the journey Marcus (Emmy-nominated Carl Clemons-Hopkins) goes through after last season’s breakup with his boyfriend not only keeps him both isolated from the rest of the cast, but often borderlines on tired gay cliches.
Ava and Deborah’s harried agent Jimmy, played to perfection by series co-creator Paul W. Downs, gets far more screen time this season. Unfortunately, this would be more welcome if it weren’t mostly opposite his deranged assistant Kayla (Megan Stalter). Downs is great at the patter necessary to juggle the egos of his two high-strung clients, but Stalter relies too heavily on the broadly delusional schtick that made her a video sensation. The entitled Hollywood scion getting a job they’re not qualified for was mildly funny in the first season, but using her inappropriate behavior to mine a #MeToo storyline is crass and adds no commentary on the cesspool that is Hollywood.
Smart is as sharp and bracingly funny as she was in the first season, but the progression of her personal growth backslides once she discovers Ava’s betrayal in an early episode. Despite a few moments of tenderness, she’s not only the same callous person she was before her relationship with Ava began, but she’s actively more abusive. It’s hard to believe that Ava would continue working for her given Deborah’s continual abuse regardless of their connection as artists. It also robs the show of the pleasure season one gave us by slowly peeling the layers away from this terrible person to reveal how she got the way she is. Instead, she’s just relentlessly cruel and by the time there is a glimmer of growth, the cruelty has gone on so long it’s eroded a lot of the goodwill the character had built up.
Meanwhile, this season tempers Ava, with Einbinder bringing a much more subdued vibe to the previously messy, spiraling character. Still processing the death of her father and the aftermath of her potboiler email, she spends much of the season attempting to be a better person, though mostly through superficial ways, while actually remaining as self-centered as her temperamental boss. Again, what worked so well the previous season was the way Ava and Deborah’s similarities helped them see themselves more acutely. Much of this dynamic is stripped away both by Deborah’s excessive cruelty, but also the shifted power dynamic caused by Deborah’s suing Ava while still keeping her as an employee.
The show still attempts to critique the fame machine, but both seasons continue to revel too much in the material pleasures that come from making it, so that rather than offer commentary on the industry it merely offers insider knowledge. Like Ava’s surface-level feminism throughout the series and her inability to follow through on her Gen-Z idealism, “Hacks” aims to examine the brutal side of the entertainment world it inhabits but fails to fully commit to a deeper criticism of it.
Although there is still a real pleasure in seeing an actress as accomplished as Jean Smart getting a meaty role, this latest season of “Hacks” does not live up to the bar set by its superior debut season. There is a chance the season will end on a higher note in the two episodes withheld for review, as Deborah and Ava are poised to take meetings in L.A. But where the two find themselves by the end of episode six left me wondering what the show actually wants to say about these women and their place within the broken system that is show business. [B-]