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Hacks Season 2 Review: Despite HBO’s Sophomore Slump, Max Comedy Survives!

Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder uncover new depths to their relationship in the Emmy-winning show’s second season.

The season one conclusion of “Hacks,” the exquisite comedy created by Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky, had us on the edge of our seats in a way that no other episode has done since the “Succession” Season 2 finale, “This Is Not For Tears.” Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), a renowned stand-up comic, and Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a writer who had recently been “cancelled,” achieved a significant breakthrough after several weeks of safe stand-up and numerous dustups.

During the episode “I Think She Will,” Deborah debuted the new confessional act that she and Ava had developed together before to Deborah’s trip to Boston to console Ava following the passing of her father.

It didn’t take long for Ava to be reminded of her most recent error in judgement, which was the tell-all email she had sent to a pair of television producers who were interested in making a show about an authoritative woman prime minister (the show’s working title was “Bitch PM”).

Ava and her boss had just recently patched things up, but it didn’t take long. Season 2 follows up in the immediate aftermath of Ava’s epiphany and extends out her worry until it becomes an exquisite kind of torment. The launch of Season 2 will take place on May 12 on HBO Max.

However, whether or not Ava gets exposed is not the primary emphasis of the first six episodes of the new season; rather, it only adds another dimension to her already complicated relationship with Deborah, who is variously Ava’s boss, mentor, friend, and adversary. There is also the unimportant issue of Deborah having smacked Ava for calling out her sudden fear over the new material. Ava had called Deborah out on her lack of courage.

They are beginning Season 2 attempting to find a new equilibrium in the situation. Deborah is now considered an underdog in Las Vegas. Her long-running advertisement on the Palmetto hotel’s side has been replaced with a picture of a douchebag magician named McLudwig.

Ava, whose enormous hands would presumably make quick work of a genuine climb, but who is really fine-tuning the more contemplative method they’re taking, is helping her claw her way back to the top after she bombed in her swan song and must now work with her to go back to the top.

This dynamic brings to mind their connection from the first season, but Deborah and Ava now have some mutual respect for one another that they have earned through hard work, even if Deborah is far less likely to display it than Ava is.

It’s a subtle change, but it’s one that resonates throughout the entire season, even as Deborah becomes more hostile toward her writing partner. Even so, this shift is felt. “Hacks” truly throws Ava through the ringer; the third episode sees her go through an emotional gauntlet that would ruin most people, and Einbinder is enthralling the whole while she’s going through it.

The tension is released just as rapidly as it is built up, sometimes in ways that are unexpected, and always with humorous or moving effects.

Hacks Season 2 Review

Not only in terms of timing or pace or lightening a scene with humour, but also in occasionally just letting their characters and performers be themselves, Aniello, Downs, and Statsky demonstrate a superb knowledge of the rhythms and cadences of their series.

(That might sound like TV Producing 101, but just think of all the shows that fizzle out before the midway mark, or that create the impression that there are five different discussions going on at the same time, but no one is actually paying attention to any of them.) They have a comprehensive understanding of their subject, and in their hands, “Hacks” virtually comes to life and takes on a breath of its own.

The sitcom continues to find more intrigue and sadness in the daily encounters between its harsh stars than most shows do in an ever-expanding cast of characters and subplots.

The possibilities of conflict are considerably higher this season when Deborah and Ava hit the road on an ambitious and unplanned comedy tour, with some aid from a road manager dubbed Weed (Laurie Metcalf, who’s livened up this season of TV by bursting the bubbles of narcissistic blondes). So is the possibility that, despite Ava’s indiscretion and Deborah’s authoritarian conduct, they’ll find a way to genuinely bond again.

As two women making the best of being put together in a (still) male-dominated sector, Smart and Einbinder remain intriguing to watch. Even when Deborah and Ava are at their most domineering and sarcastic, there’s a sense of tenderness and vulnerability there. Since their debut in Season 1, Einbinder and Smart have been one of the show’s most likeable pairs. In this episode, they push one other to new limits while being giving scene partners.

Ava and Deborah stay mindful of one other’s darkest moments — or rather, the ways they’ve inflicted the most anguish — while still really attempting to assist each other. They’ve opted, consciously or not, to accept the good with the bad.

Who is receiving the short end of the stick in that bargain is one of the themes of Season 2, which also explores the nature of change. What does permanent change look like, and do our motives for it matter? Self-improvement only serves to further enrage Ava, who says, “I’m trying to be a nice person, you f–king bitch!” whenever she attempts it. Deborah appears to want to take her recent improvements a step further, but she is hesitant to make the leap.

That deeper feeling of reflection extends to the rest of the ensemble, including the devastated Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), who tries valiantly to get over hot water officer Wilson (John Sibilly) (John Sibilly). Last season, Marcus learned how much he’d placed Deborah’s demands and operating her business over any of his own ambitions.

He changes up his schedule such that he frequently finishes up a night of clubbing with a bunch of twentysomething gays just in time for a breakfast meeting. The new episodes of Clemons-Hopkins put Marcus through his emotional paces as he discovers that balance is an effort, not a state of being.

In this episode, the focus shifts from the main characters to the supporting characters Jimmy (Paul W. Downs) and Kayla (Meg Stalter), who have an even more bizarre working connection than Deborah and Ava (Kaitlin Olson and Mark Indelicato).

Although the plot concerning the corporate office may not seem significant, especially as it is not apparent what it has to say about the power dynamics in Hollywood, it does lead to one of the finest lines/line readings of the entire series: “They don’t meet the week before Halloween?”

As it reflects on change and accountability in its second season, “Hacks” remains one of the most consummately hilarious comedies on TV, overcoming the sophomore slump to unearth ever more trenchant truths about ambition, failure, and the shifting border between work and family.

“Hacks” Season 2 starts on HBO Max on May 12 with two episodes, with two more episodes arriving weekly.

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