TV

‘Hacks’ Is Still A Lean, Mean Comedy Machine With Jean Smart Hitting The Hate-Love Groove In Season 2

Jean Smart rules. I realize that this is not exactly a newsflash. She’s ruled for decades, all the way back to Designing Women, and she really started to hit TV streak with a mix of prestige and pulpy entries like Fargo and Legion and Dirty John. With HBO’s Watchmen, Jean reveled in her flair for sardonic wit, somehow maintaining the utmost seriousness while lovingly fondling a Doctor Manhattan body-part replica that she kept in a briefcase, and then we really received a 2021 treat with the (as our own Brian Grubb described it) the Summer Of Jean Smart. This meant a glorious double-header of Smart-fueled curmudgeonry with Mare of Easttown and Hacks. That latter show has returned, and it’s as sharp as ever with a quick second-season turnaround.

Ain’t no one got time to wait three years in between Hacks seasons. I can respect that game and its expediency. And the show still aims to stay lean and mean with most of the focus on the central pair. The show pairs Smart (as comedian-clinging-to-clout Deborah Vance) with Hannah Einbinder (as canceled-young-writer-who-needs-this-break Ava), and the pair must navigate increasingly treacherous comedy waters. As Jason Tabrys previously pointed out, this is essentially a show about a pair of occasional a-holes who make each other better, both professionally and personally. Together, they prove that a generation gap can be closed, which is a rarified feat, one that Cobra Kai does exceptionally well, too, but with Hacks, that feat is significant. Because comedy’s always been tough, but these days, it’s a minefield.

And I’m not even talking about the promise of Jean Smart with a chainsaw as revealed in a trailer. Are the Emmys calling yet?

Jean Smart Chainsaw Hacks
HBO Max

Back to the business at hand: most of us are well aware that comedy has met some recent hurdles for which it was not prepared. A lot of jokes simply cannot fly these days, and plenty of comedians have groused over how they’re no longer relevant or can no longer freely offend without backlash. The times are truly changin,’ and I still think that Seth Rogen said it best while declaring that these ex-headliners should own up to their poorly aging jokes and realize that what they’re doing is not so useful to be above being rendered obsolete if they’re f*cking up or telling outdated jokes. And that’s often why Ava’s set of second eyes is so useful to Deborah, even though there’s still plenty of push-and-pull, and Ava does arguably go overboard at times with her own PC ways.

However, I appreciate that Hacks remains committed to that question — when must jokes be changed for the times, and when should the world just, you know, lighten up and laugh? — without making us think too hard about it. The show also resisted doing the “bigger and better” thing with Season 2. Plenty of shows fare well with that tactic, but Hacks knows that it’s best when it focuses on momentum. It picks up where it left off (it’s time to get the hell out of Vegas and onto tour time), and despite all of the glitz involved with Deborah’s lifestyle, the show remains stripped down like a comedy set, and it’s such an economical, breezy watch that — and this hardly ever happens — I wouldn’t even mind a slightly longer runtime. And that’s a secret to this show’s success. It goes just far enough in duration that one believes they’d want more, but restraint is key here. The show doesn’t fall into a self-indulgent trap, although Deborah and Ava sure do feel sorry for themselves at various turns.

So, side stories are minimal and (as with Carl Clemons-Hopkins’ Marcus) ultimately aim to bring characters into the main fold. The action is key with Deborah in close quarters with Ava sh*tting bricks over sending that email filled with potentially defamatory dirt against Deborah. Rest assured, the truth does come out, and boy, is the ensuing awkwardness as good as you’d expect. Tour bus life isn’t fun for anyone, let alone with someone that you f*cked over, so good luck with that, Ava. Tension runs high, but these moments are always treated with humor.

Beyond that central conflict, the show has a blast putting Deborah into wildly different touring scenarios than she grew accustomed to while carrying out her cushy Las Vegas residency. A cruise ship episode hits particularly well (not for Deborah but for the viewing audience at home), and both Ava and Deborah enter into a vacation mindset of sorts. That’s something that Deborah (who’s been hitting the workflow hard for her entire career) obviously isn’t accustomed to, especially since her workplace has long been a vacation spot for many. It’s fun to watch her let loose a little bit, but she always recaptures control, and even when she’s showing a little vulnerability, the lady knows how to make people laugh.

God, this show is a pleasure to watch. I still cackled with glee to continue watching these two characters antagonize each other while begrudgingly also showing respect. They’re both cranky and captivating and slightly insane while both being outcasts in their own realms. They need each other, and they hate it, but there’s still a little bit of love there. And it’s really a testament to the capabilities of Einbinder (not exactly a newcomer to comedy but not yet a household name) that she can roll alongside as magnificent a presence as Smart. (By the way, if you haven’t had the pleasure of catching Einbinder’s episode of the Conan Needs A Friend podcast, put it on your list already.)

In other words, the Broad City team (Lucia Aniello, Jen Statsky, and Paul Downs) did it again, and they accomplished a second round of comedy venom and glory, timed to land one day shy of a year since the first season arrived. Not too shabby.

HBO Max’s ‘Hacks’ returns on May 12.

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