Hacks season 2 review: Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder return to HBO Max

If you’re already a “Hacks” fan, chances are you’re one of the two types of viewers. Either you’re in for the thorny dynamic between Gen Z writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) and legendary comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), or you’re trying to ignore Ava and focus on the TV veteran instead. Smart, playing the woman who writes Ava’s Checks with perfectly sour disdain. In the first season of HBO Max’s Emmy-winning series, Ava’s strong sense of entitlement made her a particularly controversial character, even as the show made sure she would never escape the consequences of her terrible instincts. As “Hacks” illustrated time and time again, Ava learning more from Deborah than she would ever admit — and Deborah facing the same truth upside down — was all the interest.

The second season of “Hacks,” which premieres May 12, once again hinges on the push and pull between this odd couple, even as it sands off some of its rougher edges. The premiere finds Ava in a very different (read: extremely humble) place, bracing for the aftermath of the Season 1 finale. At the end of last season, Ava emailed cocky producers a list of Deborah’s biggest faults, just before her father’s death. Shaken, grieving, and terrified of losing Deborah’s hard-earned trust and respect, Ava spends much of the six critically screened episodes (of eight total) practically crawling at her employer’s feet. After spending so much time making fun of Deborah’s entire existence in season one, Ava wants nothing more than to impress and protect the legend as they hit the road together.

For viewers who never liked Ava, this development might come as a nice surprise. For the rest of us, seeing her scrambling for approval can be a genuinely shocking change of pace. Either way, though, resolving (most of) the tension in the series’ central relationship allows creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky to write in a different gear. After laying the groundwork for Deborah and Ava to become true friends, “Hacks” is free to delve into more internal sources of conflict, which in turn gives Smart and Einbinder a chance to push the boundaries of their performances. already elastic.

As Ava quietly panics, Deborah grows increasingly frustrated trying to express her traumas on stage in a way that won’t just gross everyone out. For years, she’s been queen of her own carefully curated estate, churning out her most trusted hits for an audience of devoted fans. Trying to push herself beyond her most basic punchlines, Deborah finds herself unmoored in a way she hasn’t been in decades, forcing her (and Smart) to step up her game even more. safety net of her vaunted Vegas residence, Deborah and those around her must all figure out what they want and how to get it without completely losing their minds. Even Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), Deborah’s once unflappable business manager, isn’t immune to Season 2’s heightened introspection as he turns following a breakup he refuses to discuss. (Clemons-Hopkins, a pleasant surprise from an Emmy nominee for season 1, proves why they deserved it while tackling Marcus’ denouement in season 2.)

If that all sounds a little heavier than expected, don’t worry: the beauty of “Hacks” has always been its ability to string together even its darkest content with self-assured jokes. In that regard, it’s a joy (and a relief) to report that Season 2 isn’t missing a beat. Whether in Vegas or on the road, “Hacks” knows exactly where to find its punchlines and when to trust its cast to deliver them with the singular deadpan — or, in the case of scene-stealer Meg Stalter as unfortunate assistant, the singular unpredictability – which made it such a treat in the first place.

The same goes for some of the show’s strategically used guest stars, including Downs (as Ava’s embattled agent), Kaitlin Olson (somehow underrated as Deborah’s daughter), Poppy Liu (as a Blackjack dealer at Deborah’s request) and Jane Adams (as Ava’s anxious mother). Joining the cast are Martha Kelly (as the pleasant but unhelpful human resources representative), Ming Na Wen (as the terrifying rival agent), and most importantly, Laurie Metcalf (as Deborah’s disarming road manager, “Weed”). and integrate immediately.

Yet, as funny as “Hacks” is and as poignant as it can be, the show’s most enduring strength remains its directing. Honed so brilliantly by Aniello, from some of the best “Broad City” episodes to his “Hacks” Emmy win, he finds moments surreal and beautiful no matter the circumstances. And in hindsight, it’s the series’ finely framed images that stand out the most. From Ava dancing on the deck of a lesbian cruise and Marcus rocking on her heels at the vet, to Deborah screaming in triumph as she was covered in (someone else’s) blood, the camera still keeps a constant focus on the essentials of “Hacks”, a comedy truly in its own right.

The second season of “Hacks” premieres May 12 on HBO Max.