When Hacks premiered on HBO Max in May 2021, no one quite knew what to expect from the series.
Created by Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky, the show charts the relationship that grows between a legendary female stand-up comedian (Jean Smart’s Deborah Vance) and a young comedy writer (Hannah Einbinder’s Ava Daniels) after they are forced to begin working together. While it could have been handled in a variety of disappointing ways, the series’ central pairing proved to be the perfect recipe for comedy gold.
Featuring a stunning and nuanced lead performance from Jean Smart, it didn’t take long for Hacks to become one of HBO Max’s first original hits. The show’s success was cemented a few months after its premiere when it raked in several Emmy awards, including an Outstanding Lead Actress statue for Smart. But as any experienced TV creator or viewer will tell you, breakout success can be a double-edged sword — one that raises fans’ expectations to unrealistic heights.
Now, with Hacks preparing to premiere its second season this week, the series has the chance to prove if its seemingly magical formula has enough juice in it to last multiple seasons. The good news is that, if the season’s first six episodes are any indication, it looks like Hacks does indeed have what it takes to be a lasting hit.
Hacks season 2 begins right where the show’s first season left off, with Deborah and Ava setting out on the former’s private jet to begin planning the tour that will allow Deborah to refine her new comedy set. Unfortunately, hanging over all of the proceedings is the email Ava sent near the end of Hacks season 1 in response to Deborah slapping her.
The email, which was sent to a pair of writers who are helming a show about an abusive female boss, detailed every unprofessional moment, personal embarrassment, and abusive slight that Deborah had subjected Ava to over the course of their relationship. When Hacks season 2 begins, Ava is, understandably, mortified by the thought of Deborah discovering the email, and so is Jimmy (Paul W. Downs), Ava and Deborah’s overworked manager.
Ava’s email has the power to refracture the very bond between her and Deborah that was only healed at the very end of Hacks season 1. The series is, therefore, smart to carry the plot point over into its second season. However, it’s also a credit to the Hacks creative team that they don’t drag out any of the leftover conflicts from the show’s first season too long. Instead, they use their lingering season 1 plot points to unspool several new, hilariously outrageous storylines.
As the series’ two leads, Smart and Einbinder are as magnetic and charismatic as ever. The pair continue to bring life and dimensionality to Ava and Deborah’s relationship, and there are several scenes between the two characters in the current season’s first six installments that rank as some of their best moments to date.
For her part, Einbinder continues to play Ava with an endearing sincerity and charming lack of self-awareness, while Smart’s performance constantly finds the right balance between Deborah’s ferociousness and humanity. Smart’s place as one of TV’s greatest performers had already been carved out before Hacks premiered, but the series provides her with the kind of victory lap most actors can only hope they’ll be given. She and Einbinder have always been good enough to keep Hacks afloat on their own, but the series’ stable of hilarious supporting players have similarly returned in fine form this year.
That’s true for Paul W. Downs, whose Jimmy continues to be put through an increasing number of uncomfortable situations. Fellow returning players like Mark Indelicato and Poppy Liu also continue to turn in memorable supporting performances as two members of Deborah’s entourage, though, the series could still benefit from more of the latter’s Kiki.
Hacks also boasts a number of standout guest stars. Laurie Metcalf, for instance, makes an immediate impression as a straight-to-the-point tour manager, while Martha Kelly and Ming-Na Wen both manage to momentarily steal the spotlight with their brief appearances.
As was the case in its first season, there are times when Hacks season 2’s plotting leaves something to be desired. That’s especially true of the way it handles Carl Clemons-Hopkins’ Marcus. The season separates Marcus from Deborah and the rest of the show’s central characters for most of its episodes and follows him as he tries to reinvent himself in the wake of a difficult breakup. It’s a subplot that goes on too long and lessens Marcus’ presence on Hacks. There’s also an episode involving a cruise ship early on in the season that ends up similarly feeling like a waste of time.
But in spite of its occasional missteps, Hacks continues to shine as one of TV’s most charming and singular comedies. It’s a series that manages to mine endless comedy out of its central relationships without ever flattening its characters, and even in its shortened eight-episode second season, Hacks still finds time to tell one-off short stories that are both devastatingly funny and emotionally insightful.
One episode in particular sees Smart’s Deborah run into a female comedian who came up at the same time as her, but chose to abandon her pursuit of stardom in favor of a quieter life. Deborah’s reunion with her former colleague (played by a remarkable Harriet Sansom Harris) seems like it’s going to go one way for most of the episode’s runtime before swerving into even more interesting and compelling territory. The same can be said for Hacks as a whole. Even when the series is playing with familiar parts, it always manages to create something that feels new and necessary.
Hacks season 2 premieres with its first two episodes Thursday, May 12 on HBO Max. Digital Trends was given access to the season’s first six installments.