4 out of 5 stars

Hacks pairs a world-famous but fading stand-up comedian, Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), with twenty-something comedy writer Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder); the former on the brink of losing her headline show and gig at QVC selling leggings to middle-aged women, with the latter struggling to get work in Los Angeles after making a misjudged joke about a politician.

Instead of being a culture-clash workspace comedy between two different generations, Hacks is about women surviving in a world designed against them, the sacrifices they have made to get to the top, and the way the world sees wealthy women.

The opening of the second season picks up immediately where the first ended, with Ava airing Deborah’s dirty laundry to producers of TV show Bitch PM. Her drunken e-mail ranting about Deborah’s borderline abusive behaviour is being used to inspire a show about a volatile female Prime Minister. Ava knows this could be the nail in her the coffin of her comedy career, and their shared manager Jimmy (Paul W. Downs) warns Ava to stay away from Deborah, but that’s difficult when Ava is bundled into a car and dragged on a road trip with her boss.

The sophomore season primarily focuses on Deborah’s back-to-basics tour. Having tanked the Las Vegas debut of her comedy reinvention, she decides to workshop this more confessional style on the road, returning to smaller venues and even state fairs.

Deborah wants to be invigorated by the experience, but she struggles outside of her gilded Nevada mansion. Hacks is smart to move Deborah outside of her safe world of Vegas stage shows and old showbiz friends. She has to confront the real world that doesn’t care about expensive face creams, clothing tags, and her net worth. They care about her, as an older divorced woman guilty about motherhood, who’s sacrificed a lot for her career.

If Hacks falls down, it’s in not knowing what to do with its fantastic supporting cast. Deborah’s long-suffering manager Marcus’s (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) post-breakup psyche is explored, but the actor’s talent is wasted on limited material, while her daughter DJ (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Kaitlin Olson) and her cage-fighting husband are pushed aside because there’s less need for them in this season’s narrative.

The only supporting character who really shines is Kayla (Megan Stalter) as the world’s worst assistant who also happens to be the boss’s daughter. Deborah’s on-demand Blackjack dealer Kiki (Poppy Liu) also makes a short but charming appearance that’ll leave fans wanting more, but Damien (Mark Indelicato) and Josefina (Rose Abdoo) are almost nowhere to be seen. Perhaps there are just too many interesting characters and talented actors to balance out with Hacks.

A guest appearance from Laurie Metcalf as tour manager Weed is all too short but memorable, while other new cast members include a useless HR rep most office workers will recognise (Martha Kelly) and a terrifying rival agent (Ming Na Wen).

As Deborah, Smart again delivers a layered performance of a women learning to take risks and ignoring ageist attitudes. She starts to open up to Ava and the world, and comes to realise laughing at herself makes her more likeable. Slowly, Vance unpeels the layer of stardom, fame, and face cream to confront her trauma and her own dislikability.

Meanwhile, Ava is turning over a new leaf with the aim to be less self-centred, learning that actions sometimes have huge consequences. Still reeling from the death of her father, Ava also to come to terms with her mother’s newly found independence after years spent caring for her ailing husband.

The episode where Ava meets up with her mother is the standout of a tightly written eight episodes. Through two separate plots, it depicts older women trying to find themselves in a new world. Deborah meets a younger man (Devon Sawa) who finds her desirable because she’s an attractive older lady and not simply because she’s a famous millionaire… while Ava learns that her mum has interests, career desires, and needs outside of being a wife and mother.

Another standout episode involves Deborah performing on a lesbian cruise ship. Deborah assumed they were going on a cruise for gay men, not women—who are, in her words, the wrong type of gays. Then follows 30-minutes of the most uncomfortable television in years.

Hacks doesn’t repeat the dynamics and plots of the first season. Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky are writing in a different gear. Having laid the groundwork for Deborah and Ava to become something more than co-workers, this season explores the many layers of womanhood and female friendship.

As a half-hour comedy, Hacks also stands out for brilliant direction that’s almost as strong as the writing. Co-creator Lucia Aniello (Broad City) finds beauty in the surreality of life behind the camera, with little details like Marcus’ club outfit in the vets, Deborah in bed the morning after, and Ava learning to float in the pool. It all really reminds you of the beauty in the absurdity of ordinary things.

Hacks stands out in the TV comedy landscape because doesn’t gloss over or shy away from the ugliest parts of its characters. Women are complicated. The nicest women have limits, the most annoying assistant has feelings, and the biggest bitch in comedy has a heart.

Deborah Vance is one of the most refreshing characters on television, played with such narcissistic cunning by Jean Smart, an actress who has deserved greater attention and accolades decades earlier. She’s ruthless, elbowing her way to the top, sacrificing her husband and daughter for success, but plagued by the guilt of that. The knowledge of all this weighs her down, locked under layers of botox, La Mer face cream, and glittery suits. By taking Vance out of the shadow of the Vegas limelight, season 2 of Hacks really lets us understand Deborah a lot better.

USA | 2022 | 8 EPISODES | 2.00:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writers: Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky, Ariel Karlin, Pat Regan, Andrew Law, Aisha Muharrar, Joe Mand & Samantha Riley.
directors: Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs & Trent O’Donnell.
starring: Jean Smart, Hannah Einbiner, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Rose Abdoo, Christopher McDonald, Paul W. Downs, Mark Indelicato, Megan Starter, Poppy Liu, Kaitlin Olson, Johnny Sibilly, Angela Elayne, Jane Adams, Joe Mande, Lauren Weedman, Lorenzo Izzo & Luenell.