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Tuesday, May 21st, 2024  

Hacks (Season Three)

Max, May 2, 2024

Apr 30, 2024 Photography by Eddy Chen/Max Web Exclusive
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The end of Hacks’ second season was sheer perfection. Writer Ava Daniels, Emmy-nominated Hannah Einbinder in a nervy, awkward and funny performance, helped veteran comedian Deborah Vance, Jean Smart, a two-time consecutive Emmy winner, write a comeback standup special. It didn’t just reinvigorate her dwindling career, but helped her become the biggest comic in the world. That success led the creators of a satire program to court Ava. Instead of celebrating Deborah got hurtful. She fired Ava, and curtly told her tearful protégé to build on her newfound momentum alone. As much as fans want more of the pair’s volatile but sidesplitting dynamic, it made sense for Ava to move on, particularly given how Deborah would berate and manipulate her during their lowest moments. It would have been logical for the creators to end on a moving and compelling high after both characters had shown so much growth, rather than falling into a repetitive sitcom rut.

Those worries are cast aside faster than Deborah flipping through one gaudy, overpriced dress after the next on her new stylist’s hanger rack in the Season Three premiere. In a series best bit (before reading on, please watch the premiere and second episode once they drop on May 2nd so as not to spoil this giddy s e) her “closet” turns out to be an airplane hangar a few miles away from the Las Vegas strip she toiled on for decades while sporting sequined fabrics as flashy as that tourist trap’s neon. Her stylists are agape by the volume of racks in this warehouse as Deborah thumbs through her inventory on a rolodex before finding the dress she’s looking for. It’s a frilly, frumpy, buttercup yellow monstrosity. Deborah can’t even fit into it anymore, but she swears she’ll lose the weight in order to do so.

As Ava astutely points out when they bump into each other at a hotel, Deborah is just trying to challenge herself now that she’s reached a lofty new career plateau. Indeed, fans are still so enamored with her new special that they laugh at everything Deborah says as she tries to work out new material, which makes it impossible to know which jokes are genuine keepers. Everyone, from those audiences to her staff, are enabling Deborah, except for Ava. Their familiar dynamic swiftly reemerges as Ava teases Deborah about the dress, leading her former mentor to call the hotel’s desk and beckon a gay bellhop to her their room for an honest opinion. It’s the kind of scene that will satisfy fans of TV’s most acidic comedy.

Better still: Hacks’ new episodes prioritize character development as high as the laughs. As Deborah and Ava joke in her hotel room after their exchange about the dress, a powerful realization reverberates: the elder comic needs someone like Ava to keep her grounded. That ante is upped as Deborah asks Ava for advice about a joke for the award ceremony, and the younger emerging talent refuses because her former mentor let her go so coldly, making her new writing gig seem like a healthier choice.

The new season also gives other relationships fresh twists. Carl Clemons-Hopkins is as unflappable as ever as the diva comedian’s right hand man Marcus. He relishes a new mission to take on superfans hawking unsolicited Deborah Vance merch. Marcus is one-upped by Rose Abdoo, the scene stealing Josefina, Deborah’s estate manager. When Josefina texts on the comic’s behalf after she pops an Ambien before bed, it’s a curt but gut busting gag that’ll leave you laughing harder than anything else on TV this year.

Meanwhile, Ava is back with her ex Ruby (Lorenza Izzo of Confess, Fletch, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). Ruby is starring in a major superhero franchise. She and Ava now feel like equals and certainly appear happy in their fancy Hollywood home. Their chemistry is clearly apparent as they share some lovingly intimate scenes that feel lived in, rather than salacious. This gives viewers plenty to process considering how heartbroken Ava was when they first split. But their idyllic showbiz romance is dashed once Ava considers Deborah’s job offer. This leads Ruby to remind Ava just how unhealthy the pair’s working relationship was. Ava makes a strong counter argument about how they have moved on from all that, while still retaining a distinctive and exciting creative spark. The layers of resentment, jealousy, and valid points about toxicity make both characters relatable. Their arguing is complex, even as the script also boasts on-point jokes about Ava failing to understand her girlfriend’s super hero character. (“I don’t know how to follow the graphic novel’s fuckin’ boxes!”)

Speaking of new gigs: the ever-embattled Deborah gets a chance to stand in her dream job, at comedy’s utmost echelon, one always dominated by male comics. The look she gives herself in the mirror before taking that highly coveted stage will give you one of the gut punches that Hacks is known for as much as its punchlines. Best of all: Deborah kills it, so much so that she might have an opportunity to take on that job full time, and bring Ava in tow as her writer, much to the dismay of Ruby. Given all that Deborah has endured, the moment is poignant and speaks subtly but powerfully to showbiz’s entrenched sexism.

Ava then rebukes Ruby’s warnings, prompting her partner to call for a pause and reassessment of their relationship. When she goes back to Deborah’s mansion, the second episode ends with the comedy matriarch doling out familiar, if understated orders (such as “shoes off” the moment Ava enters the foyer). That gives the young writer, and the audience pause. Such self awareness of how unhealthy relationships ensnare us back into regressive power dynamics makes the second episode’s closing moments an effective cliffhanger. That’s because we’re left to wonder how a now seasoned showbiz warrior like Ava will deal with Deborah’s inevitable domineering this go around.

So far, Season Three of Hacks is free of the formulas that make lesser shows so much more hack-y. (www.max.com/shows/hacks)

Author rating: 8/10

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