tv review

Hacks Seems a Bit Lost

Despite some early-season wobbliness, the performances by and chemistry between Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder stay on point. Photo: Karen Ballard/HBO Max

“I don’t like comedy. Everyone’s trying too hard; it’s, like, so awkward.”

That’s Damien (Mark Indelicato), personal assistant to legendary comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), explaining why watching Deborah’s stand-up — or any stand-up, for that matter — doesn’t really move him. The second part of his statement also happens to apply to the beginning of the second season of Hacks, the Emmy Award–winning HBO Max series centered on the generational differences between Deborah, an old-school comic, and Ava (Hannah Einbinder), the young comedy writer Deborah hires to punch up her jokes.

While season one immediately locked into its observational, wry tone, its follow-up starts out like a series that lost its keys and can’t remember where it left them. The show and its central creative team, creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky, slowly get their rhythm back as each episode progresses, and Smart and Einbinder still have an energetic rapport that’s fun to watch. But especially in the first couple of installments — HBO provided six out of the eight that will roll out two per week starting today — there’s a fair amount of trying too hard, and it is indeed awkward.

Some scenes last a beat longer than they should, as if they’re holding for more laughs than they’ve earned. Others, particularly those involving secondary characters like Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), the CEO of Deborah’s business, and Jimmy (Downs), Deborah’s and Ava’s agent, have little reason to exist at all. Where narrative focus and sharp dialogue were hallmarks of season one, season two sometimes feels aimless and unsure of the underlying points it’s trying to make. If season one hadn’t set such a high bar, these issues might not be quite as striking. But it did, and they are.

Much of the first season of Hacks revolved around the love-hate relationship between Ava and Deborah, and the series is determined to keep that push and pull going. The new episodes find Deborah and Ava on the road, touring small venues and dealing with the consequences of a defamatory email Ava sent to some TV producers eager for dirt on Deborah. Once Deborah finds out, she decides to sue her writing partner for violating her NDA, giving the season the plot thread it needs to generate continued conflict between the two. But even Hacks itself acknowledges that the device is a bit thin. Damien, also on the road with the pair, asks Ava why Deborah doesn’t just fire her instead of keeping her around and being mean to her (but only sometimes). “I don’t know, I guess because I’m her joke writer and I’m funny,” Ava answers.

Actually, Deborah probably keeps her around because she loves Ava, and Deborah tends to punish the people she loves most. But the way Deborah’s attitude toward Ava constantly flips — one minute she wants to have a drink with her, the next she’s reminding Ava that she plans to lawsuit away all her money — doesn’t feel as grounded in reality as the rest of the series.

With Deborah and Ava tour-bussing it across the country, several other characters’ storylines are siloed off from the main one. Single again and without Deborah around constantly needing his attention, Marcus starts to spiral and shirk some of his responsibilities. Jimmy continues to struggle with Kayla (Megan Stalter), his 100 percent useless assistant determined to stay on his desk. But every time Hacks cuts away from Deborah and Ava to show us what’s happening with them, it’s as though we’re being asked to pause Hacks so we can watch a different show. The heart of this series lies with Deborah and Ava, and it’s at its best when it stays focused on them.

The good news is that the performances by and chemistry between Smart and Einbinder stay on point. Smart remains in complete command as Deborah, who retains her natural confidence even though some of her material on the road isn’t clicking. Hacks doesn’t spend too much time showing us Deborah’s sets, but Smart and the writers do a credible job of crafting jokes that sound old-fashioned but not completely terrible. “I once bombed so bad,” she tells a crowd while describing a set from her past, “they put me on a no-fly list.” It’s not a great one-liner, but Smart delivers it with just the right amount of droll self-deprecation to make it work.

Like the woman she plays, Smart is every inch a pro, and Einbinder continues to hold her own opposite her co-star, handling more emotional moments with ease. There’s a funny, horrifying bit of business involving the ashes of Ava’s father — the tour manager, Weed, played by a terrific but underused Laurie Metcalf, mistakes them for a bunch of dirt in a tennis ball can — that carries real weight because Einbinder’s anguish seems so genuine.

Hacks is at its best in moments like that, when it highlights life at its most simultaneously hilarious and wrenching. It just takes a little while for it to reach those scenes this time around. Season one was carefully and thoughtfully constructed, with callbacks that added layers of foreshadowing and meaning to the comedy and a strong thematic focus on sexism and ageism in the entertainment industry and the career consequences faced by women deemed too outspoken. Season two is much looser and, like a stand-up tour, jumps from place to place without clearly addressing its broader ideas.

In that, the series seems to be going through the same process that Deborah is: trying out material, figuring out what isn’t working, and changing direction to see if something else will stick. She’s so desperate for audience feedback that after a show in Memphis she chases down a guy who has stalked her for years to ask what he thought of her set. “You’re always great to watch,” he tells Deborah, before adding, “I don’t know, it just wasn’t the Deborah Vance that I’m used to.” He could just as easily be talking about the second season of Hacks, a show that is still fun to watch but also not quite working at the level its fans have come to expect.

Hacks Seems a Bit Lost