This may not be the best moment for comedy as an institution. The intersection of cancel culture and incidents like that infamous slap at the Oscars suggest that poking fun at everyone may not be in fashion, and that those used to surveying a broad range of targets for their material should think carefully about who they might offend. Yet there are still stand-up comedians who tour around the country and the world telling jokes, and whether or not their material is great, their stories can be interesting enough in their own right. The best example: HBO Max’s Hacks.
The series, which returns for its second season with two new episodes each week, scored Emmys for lead actress Jean Smart and its writers and directors for season one. The odd couple of established – and faded – comedian Deborah Vance (Smart) and young writer Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) was a winning formula, with enough humor being milked from their witty banter that there almost didn’t need to be a show around them. What season two proves, however, is that the rest of its universe is just as worth getting to know.
A roadshow tour provides a helpful setup for the season’s antics, putting Deborah and Ava in extremely close quarters as Ava struggles to reel in the effects of the destructive e-mail she sent spilling all of Deborah’s darkest secrets to a team of comedy writers when she was feeling particularly hurt. How that all plays out is best experienced without knowing anything, but it’s important to point out that, as usual, this show’s true strength comes from being able to seamlessly find drama in between its many moments of comedy.
There is a renewed focus on the series’ supporting characters, including Mark Indelicato’s loyal personal assistant Damien and Megan Stalter’s hapless assistant Kayla, as well as a handful of new faces who bring plenty to the overall feel. Laurie Metcalf and Ming-Na Wen are among the stars who make memorable appearances early in the season, and Martha Kelly, who was also terrific as a deadpan drug dealer on Euphoria, is particularly hilarious as a similarly monotone human resources representative who is forced to deal with the problematic situation that Deborah and Ava’s joint manager Jimmy (Paul W. Downs) finds himself in with the suggestive and unfiltered Kayla.
Downs also serves as one of the showrunners, along with his wife Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky. The three make an extraordinary team, and they approach the show with a positive outlook, one that does not involve “punching down” to insult any one person or group, but rather to find the humor in so many situations. Watching Deborah flail when a joke lands poorly and then double-down to make it much worse instead of backing off is part of what this show is about, the life of a comedian and what lines are sometimes crossed in pursuit of being funny.
While Hacks, and season two especially, is so much more than just the Deborah-Ava dynamic, it still remains an incredible central aspect of every episode. Smart has had a long and storied career in which she continues to show that she has no limit to what she can do and that she’s willing to try many new genres, including in Fargo and Watchmen recently. Opposite her, Einbinder is whip-smart and deeply sardonic. It’s a marvel to watch the two of them trade barbs and even more compelling when they happen a more serious moment of dramatic connection. Hacks has plenty to offer, and all of it is superb.
Season two of Hacks premieres with two new episodes each week on Thursday, May 12th on HBO Max.