HBO’s Brutal Comedy “Hacks” Returns With Raw, Bloody Candor, Soaring To Even Greater Heights

Deborah Vance embodies the difference between a punishing mentor and a terrible one. If you’re lucky, you may never try either type. But if you’re lucky — and resilient enough to withstand a tantrum or 20 — you can learn invaluable lessons from someone as relentless as Jean Smart’s force of nature.

In the second season of “Hacks”, Deborah is especially brutal with her protege Ava (Hannah Einbinder) without ever completely violating the agreement the two have made. Showrunners Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky and Lucia Aniello deserve a lot of credit for directing the comedy on the line between the funny and the devastating, but none of their efforts would have made it if Smart and Einbinder weren’t such a phenomenal team.

These new episodes reaffirm why Smart’s Emmy win for her first season performance was indisputable and make a strong case for a repeat.

Ava is still annoying, but her mistakes have also made her less impetuous.

But Statsky and Downs deepen the robust character profile that Einbinder has established, allowing her performance to expand her comedy writer’s vulnerability without losing the right to be too cool for that right that keeps Ava in trouble. Ava is still annoying, but her mistakes have also made her less impetuous and thoughtful enough to teach Deborah a few things about herself.

In a way, this improves on the perfections of generational justice that some people had issues with, especially in the early episodes where the character exemplified some of the worst clichés of the millennium imaginable. Einbinder’s deft development of Ava’s quirks and flaws led us to understand that, to quote another famous 20-something character, she is not the voice of her generation, but one voice, and one so irritatingly self-centered that even his contemporaries can’t stand it.

Ava still has a place within Deborah’s inner circle, despite a cruel betrayal in the season one finale, which is still floating in the ether as the premiere picks up right where last year’s finale left off: with the two women mid-flight. in Deborah’s private. jet, your shared future in the air.

“Hacks” doubles down on its intergenerational strengths in these new episodes, leveling the playing field where Deborah and Ava simultaneously team up and face off. Deborah is on the wane, having tried out the new confessional material that Ava encouraged her to explore on her latest show as the Queen of the Las Vegas Strip, only to go down magnificently.

RELATED: “Hacks” Understands How Ageism Approaches Women and Revels in Fighting Back

So when the two hit the road for Deborah’s next show, spending most of their days on a tour bus (but luxurious – it’s still Deborah’s show, after all), they have no choice but to be painfully genuine with each other. . This often translates to raw and bloody candor. These moments also require Deborah and Ava to take a look at themselves that aren’t necessarily fatal, but ask them to destroy any impressions of themselves that they might be clinging to.

Elsewhere, the script adds some tenderness to the strained relationship between Ava and Deborah’s shared agent Jimmy (played with a wonderful sense of knowledge by Downs) and Kayla, Meg Stalter’s unbridled assistant Jimmy can never shake.

The beautiful magical act of “Hacks” is that there is never any doubt as to why Ava stays with Deborah.

The beautiful magical act of “Hacks” is that there’s never any doubt as to why Ava stays with Deborah, especially after the writers respond to Ava’s betrayal with a Deborah Vance-exclusive twist designed to inflict maximum agony. (Even that stunt arrives wrapped in Smart’s velvet glove delivery: “It’ll be a good learning experience for you!” Deborah chirps as Ava lifts her jaw from her lap.)

They can hurt each other, but they also understand each other better than the rest of the world. Only now they understand that this mutual understanding is not empowering – it is, at best, a crutch and, more accurately, an insurmountable roadblock.

The scenes that establish this section of his screenplay are equal parts acting masterclass and writing class, with the stars’ performances infusing superb tension into his plot without sacrificing its comedic value. In a moment of destruction, it occurs to Deborah that she was not drawn to Ava’s writing because she understands it, but because she is just as selfish and cruel as she is.

Because the truth is, Deborah Vance is a bully, and of the worst kind: the one who thinks she’s the victim. Every single person in her life is on her payroll and would never be around her if her livelihood didn’t depend on it, including Ava. There should be quotes around these last two sentences as they are a direct elevation of an episode’s dialogue.

That’s also the thesis of a season that revolves around Deborah’s odyssey to ensure a return. In Ava, Deborah sees an opportunity to improve her game and teach someone else to be better at it. In Deborah, Ava sees a teacher and a career lifeline, but also a means of penance. But it is also clear that these women love and respect each other.

Smart has a cosmic glow in scenes where Deborah lets the purple stains on her spirit escape her battle-ready facade.

Smart has a cosmic glow in scenes where Deborah lets the purple stains on her spirit escape her battle-ready facade. And the actor interprets those moments with painful subtlety, allowing Deborah’s immaculate mask to fall, ever so slightly, as she is confronted with the truth of who she is.

It’s in the way she slits her eyes or drops the confident smile that always slightly reinforces her expression. When she follows these moments with return shots with harder blows, whether through the perfect joke or an unpolished truth, it’s impossible to pay attention to anything else.

This may sound like hyperbole, but those who watch will see that this is not the case.

It’s also no exaggeration to say that this new season explodes the energy that “Hacks” builds over the course of its first season, putting more pressure on Deborah’s imperfections, accurately depicting the courage and work it takes to start over as a woman in a field where male colleagues are sailing on their laurels. For the first time, Deborah feels what it’s like to be overshadowed, whether by her ego, her prejudices, or, at an illuminating low point, an animal’s placenta.

The new season also pushes Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), Deborah’s newly formed but eternally exasperated CEO, into the unknown, allowing Clemons-Hopkins more opportunities to break free from her unimpressive performance. They are excellent as sensible executives, but also wonderful at getting rid of their rigidity. And when they and other guest stars cross paths with Deborah and Ava or join them and Mark Indelicato’s eternally energetic Damien on the tour bus, season two finds unexpected new gear to change.

Throughout, he asks whether a person can truly be their best selves in a profession that rewards self-preservation and Darwinian levels of pettiness, and if so, what does it take to master that lesson? Answering these questions causes “Hacks” to soar to greater heights as it brings Deborah and Ava plummeting to Earth, demanding that they discover a new way to fly without destroying each other on the ride.

The second season of “Hacks” premieres with two episodes Thursday, May 24 on HBO Max, with new episodes premiering weekly.

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