It took too long but Jean Smart is now widely recognized as one of the best TV actresses working today. The range of her work in “Fargo,” “Watchmen,” and now “Hacks” is stunning, and the character she’s crafting on this HBO Max Emmy winner for directing, writing, and actress could be career-defining. Much more than just a riff on Joan Rivers—although the inspiration is obvious—Smart’s Deborah Vance is a rich, complex character. She’s a woman who guards her vulnerability whenever possible and yet has to access that part of her on stage every night. In many ways, the first season was about a woman shaken out of her comfort zone, forced to consider what’s funny, what’s real, and what’s important. The second season of “Hacks” continues this journey, and is almost more ambitious in that Deborah has now decided to be more honest on-stage. But she has to figure out who she is off-stage in order to make that possible. As her writing partner/frenemy Ava (Hannah Einbinder) says to her, referring to where she was in Vegas versus what she’s trying now: “I think that was just a hill—now you’re climbing a mountain.”
The new season of “Hacks” picks up immediately after the end of season one with Ava realizing she made a huge mistake when she spilled all the tea about Deborah’s worst habits to a pair of TV writers. It takes a couple episodes for that bomb to fall in Deborah and Ava’s life, but the way it unfolds is a fascinating embrace of the themes of “Hacks.” Without spoiling, it turns Deborah and Ava into opponents in the real world even as they’re forced to be allies as they work her new show on the road, free from the safety of the Vegas Strip. “Hacks” understands how show business can make people who can’t stand each other on one level into creative inspirations for one another at the same time. Like Deborah, Ava is trying to figure out who she is, constantly moving toward better habits—she tries to go sober and limit technology in her life this year—but realizing that forcing change never works. “Hacks” concerns two women at very different career levels who are undergoing similar arcs—it could be read as a story about how we’re really trying to figure out who we are for our entire lives.
It’s also just damn funny. Despite the relatively deep previous paragraph, the second season is more of an ensemble comedy. Deborah and Ava’s manager Jimmy (the very funny Paul Downs) gets some hysterical beats as he tries to wrangle both of his problematic clients and a kooky assistant (Megan Stalter) who makes his life much harder. The premiere features almost all of the supporting players from season one, including Kaitlin Olson’s DJ, Chris McDonald’s Marty, and Mark Indelicato’s Damien. And it’s nice to see Carl Clemons-Hopkins given a rich arc again this season as Marcus battles the intense burden of perfectionism that he puts on himself as Deborah’s closest ally versus a perception of happiness that includes clubbing and dog ownership. The casting agent for this season also deserves an award for bringing in Laurie Metcalf for a brilliant pair of episodes, along with the great Harriet Sansom Harris, a Margaret Cho cameo, and a fun Devon Sawa turn. It’s clearly a show everyone wants to join.
The writing on “Hacks” is better when it avoids set-ups that could be called sitcomish. The fourth episode takes Deborah and Ava on a cruise, and the character work is great, but the plotting is too predictable and easy, especially for a show that usually veers left when it looks like it’s going right. It’s good for a show like “Hacks” to be silly every now and then, but those moments stand out this season more against a backdrop that takes the show’s ideas more seriously.