‘Hacks’ Is Back With An Even More Exhilarating, Sexier, And Still Comedically Authentic Season 3

Three years ago when Hacks premiered, my colleague Jason Tabrys observed how the Max series proved that the comedy generation gap is certainly not insurmountable. That central truth of the series still rings true, and I believe that Hacks remains tied for best-status at closing that gap (along with Netflix’s Cobra Kai). However, it’s time for Hacks to grow a little bit savvier and more raw. Also, sexier? Yes, and it’s not only Christina Hendricks and her sensually domineering character who kicks that door open.

With that sentence out there in the wind, let’s get one thing straight: third seasons are hard. They are a proving ground. And they hold a mirror up to the show’s central gimmick or conceit.

In this case, Hacks has — until this moment — mostly been about the push-pull dynamic of two fiery women who respect the hell out of each other but are not keen to admit as much. The first season set up the mentor-student relationship between Jean Smart‘s legendary comedy queen, Deborah Vance, and Hannah Einbinder’s 20-something protégée, who was actually making Deborah’s content much better. Ava tweaked Deborah’s old-school jokes while benefiting from her employer’s clout, and Deborah could not have continued her reign without Ava’s help. As I wrote in our second-season review, the show then hit the road while testing the duo’s boundaries on a comedy tour. This also put the pair at legal odds against each other and posed the question of whether they had outgrown each other.

Here we are at the third season, which is where everything could fall apart with this dynamic. The push-pull tendencies could grow repetitive if continued, but the risk of softening a central relationship can change everything to a show’s detriment (see Netflix’s take on The Punisher). Through a skillful turn from the Hacks writers, however, the third season does something different than its two predecessors and succeeds mightily. Is the power struggle completely over? No way, but there is no question that these two women are meant to be together, and that they enhance each other professionally. As well, they somehow begin to really connect on a personal level and — wait for it — make each other better humans.

It sounds sappy, but it rolls well.

The show has moved back to the Vegas setting while finally filming in Sin City, and now, it’s time to dive into the inner belly of that species called The Comedian.

Though there’s no shortage of books, podcasts, and comments on the subject, stand-up comedy is tougher than many people realize, requiring performers to mine their own personal lives for content. It’s raw and almost self-torturous, and then, there’s the tendency for that mask, if you will, to take over the celebrity’s entire public persona. They have to be “on” when the paparazzi approach. They must be engaging in interviews. This is probably exhausting for them, and I find myself thinking of Craig Ferguson telling UPROXX about how “turning it off” is vital to a comedian’s well being. What is that struggle like, however, when we’re talking about a comedienne with a tough-as-nails reputation? That’s where a lot of the beauty and ugliness of this season resides. Both for Deborah and Ava — who is doing quite well when the season begins after having earned her own professional clout.

Is greater success worth losing everything else that is dear to life? And what happens when the personal and the professional realms of life become impossible to untangle? These are fundamental dilemmas that both characters wrestle with as professional lives threaten to take over their self-identities. Especially Deborah, who has always dealt with that stress by pelting it with humor. This year, she must reckon with that coping mechanism. It gets heavy at times!

Fortunately, those slightly moody moments are handled breezily with the writers always ready to take a detour into other environments, including an episode where Deborah and Ava go on a hike and get lost. You can imagine how much hell breaks loose as a result. The writers also lean on the strong ensemble cast as a source of levity. Newly crowned series regulars (and audience favorites) Paul W. Downs and Megan Stalter do their best to mop up Ava’s mistakes as her manager and his assistant. Further, Emmy nominee Carl Clemons-Hopkins (as Marcus) quietly steals every scene he’s in. While the show’s runtime is just right, seeing more Marcus is the only reason I’d ever ask for longer episodes.

Ultimately, however, this season is all about Deborah and Ava settling into a groove, and of course things happen to threaten that newfound vibe. You gotta keep it interesting, after all. There are moments when both will wonder if their teammate status is worth the trouble, and whether their way with words will eventually turn their souls inside out, crapping them out in classic Vegas mode. That risk grows scary in particular moments, but this show pulls off every roller coaster turn before veering into a full-on joyride. And my goodness, there are plenty of steamy scenes, not only for Ava but Deborah, too, as they both let loose, and the show explores more “recreational” time for their characters.

Hang on tight because Hacks is ready to have its way with you.

Max’s ‘Hacks’ returns on May 2.