If you’re already a fan of “Hacks,” chances are you’re one of two kinds of viewers. Either you’re in it for the prickly dynamic between Gen Z writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) and legendary stand-up comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), or you try to ignore Ava and instead focus on TV veteran Smart, playing the woman writing Ava’s checks with perfectly acidic disdain. In the first season of HBO Max’s Emmy-winning series, Ava’s acute sense of entitlement made her a particularly controversial character, even though the show made sure that she never escaped the consequences of her terrible instincts. As “Hacks” illustrated over and over again, Ava learning more from Deborah than she’d ever admit — and Deborah facing the same truth in the reverse — was the entire point.
The second season of “Hacks,” which premieres May 12, once again depends on the push and pull between this odd couple, even as it sands off some of its rougher edges. The premiere finds Ava in a much different (read: extremely humbled) place, bracing for the consequences from the Season 1 finale. At the end of last season, Ava drunkenly emailed some snotty producers a list of Deborah’s biggest faults, right before her father died. Shaken, grieving, and terrified that she might lose Deborah’s hard-earned trust and respect, Ava spends much of the six episodes screened for critics (out of eight in total) practically groveling at her employer’s feet. After devoting so much time deriding Deborah’s entire existence in the first season, Ava now wants nothing more than to impress and protect the legend as they go on the road together.
For those viewers who never liked Ava, this evolution might come as a welcome surprise. For the rest of us, seeing her scramble for approval can make for a genuinely jarring change of pace. Either way, though, resolving (most of) the tension in the show’s central relationship lets creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky write in a different gear. Having laid the groundwork for Deborah and Ava to become actual friends, “Hacks” is free to delve into more internal sources of conflict, which in turn gives Smart and Einbinder a chance to stretch the bounds of their already elastic performances.
As Ava quietly panics, Deborah gets increasingly frustrated with trying to articulate her traumas onstage in a way that won’t just bum everyone out. For years, she’s been queen of her own carefully curated domain, churning out her most reliable hits for an audience of devoted fans. In trying to push herself beyond her most basic punchlines, Deborah finds herself unmoored in a way she hasn’t been in decades, forcing her (and Smart) to step her game up even more. Without the safety net of her vaunted Vegas residency, Deborah and her inner circle all have to figure out what they want and how to get it without completely losing their minds. Not even Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), Deborah’s once unflappable business manager, is immune from Season 2’s increase in introspection as he spins out in the aftermath of a breakup he refuses to discuss. (Clemons-Hopkins, a pleasant surprise of an Emmy nominee for Season 1, proves why they deserved it while tackling Marcus’ unraveling in Season 2.)
If this all sounds a bit heavier than expected, don’t worry: The beauty of “Hacks” has always been its ability to thread even its darkest material with self-assured jokes that cut right through. In that respect, it’s a joy (and relief) to report that Season 2 doesn’t miss a beat. Whether in Vegas or on the road, “Hacks” knows exactly where to find its punchlines and when to trust its cast to deliver them with the singular deadpan — or, in the case of scene-stealer Meg Stalter as a hapless assistant, the singular unpredictability — that made it such a treat in the first place.
The same goes for some of the show’s strategically utilized guest stars, including returning cast members Downs (as Ava’s beleaguered agent), Kaitlin Olson (somehow underrated as Deborah’s daughter), Poppy Liu (as Deborah’s on-demand Blackjack dealer) and Jane Adams (as Ava’s anxious mother). Joining the cast and immediately fitting right in are Martha Kelly (as a pleasant but useless HR rep), Ming Na Wen (as a terrifying rival agent) and, especially, Laurie Metcalf (as Deborah’s disarmingly blunt road manager, “Weed”).
Still, as funny as “Hacks” is, and as poignant as it can be, the show’s most enduring strength is still its directing. Honed so brilliantly by Aniello, from some of the best “Broad City” episodes until her “Hacks” Emmy win, it finds surreal and beautiful moments no matter the circumstance. And looking back, it’s the show’s finely framed images that stand out most. From Ava dancing on the deck of a lesbian cruise and Marcus rocking on his heels at the veterinarian, to Deborah screaming in triumph while covered in (someone else’s) blood, the camera always keeps a steady focus on the crux of “Hacks,” a comedy truly unto itself.
The second season of “Hacks” premieres May 12 on HBO Max.