Season 2 of Hacks takes place primarily on the road as comedy veteran Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) workshops her new stand-up material, but in a metaphorical sense, these episodes are a path to something larger. It’s a liminal season, as the characters figure themselves out with no fixed end point in sight—at least, in the six out of eight episodes available for review. But the truism holds out here: it’s about the journey, not the destination.
In case you forgot where we left off, Ava (Hannah Einbinder) had just sent a damning email about Deborah to some Hollywood producers, Deborah was planning to hit the road with her new stand-up set, and Marcus’ (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) relationship had fallen apart thanks to his obsession with work. Now let’s dive in.
Deborah’s emotional arc takes center stage this season, and arguably for the better (after all, Smart won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for the role). The first episode literally opens with her face being painted over as her residency at the Palmetto ends, a major ego hit for the Vegas fixture. Deborah has to confront her own shortcomings, both professionally and emotionally, again and again throughout the season. Sometimes it feels like a Sisyphisian task for Deborah; she continually seems to take two steps back as soon as it seems like she’s moving forward. That’s not to say she’s suddenly pathetic, but rather that the writers are willing to let her struggle. It makes any win for Deborah all the more earned.
Ava’s storyline is a bit more muddled. She’s reckoning with her poor decision-making (namely, sending the incendiary email in a heated moment), sure, but her attempts at self-improvement are more joke fodder than real opportunities for character growth. One of the more compelling chapters of her arc is saved for near the end of the season, when Ava’s mother (Frasier alum Jane Adams) turns up and puts her in the unenviable position of parenting your own mom. It’s certainly a turning point for any young adult, realizing that your parents need just as much guidance as you, and one prematurely ushered in by her father’s untimely death. As much as Ava works better when she’s not quite as in focus as Deborah, she is underserved by the plot for much of this season.
That aside, the dynamic duo of Ava and Deborah proves as watchable as ever. I don’t want to focus on them too much, as the progress of their relationship is spoiler central, but needless to say that the show continues to mine the vein that Ava is, in many ways, a younger version of Deborah. While this similarity was more than established in Season 1, it finds real purchase here.
Marcus is separated from the other main characters for a good portion of Season 2, so we get an in-depth look at how he copes post-breakup (hint: not too well). His storyline explores how an all-or-nothing mindset can derail even the most diligent workaholic. Beyond his moments of vulnerability, it’s delightful to see Clemons-Hopkins play the straight man opposite Angela Elayne Gibbs (Marcus’ mom) and Luenell (her friend Miss Loretta), who make for a lovably zany pair. The relatively composed Marcus is usually a foil to Deborah and Ava’s chaos, but the writers make his character more fully realized by leaning into his personal struggles.
Character development aside, the show is still acerbic and hilarious. Ava and Kayla (Meg Stalter) get some of the funniest one-liners, thanks in part to how well we know each of them (one of the best moments comes when Kayla insists that Castaway is “about masturbation”). The writers keep pushing cringe comedy, just as they did in Season 1, and it pays off especially well in both Deborah and Marcus’ storylines. I actually had some difficulty finishing an episode where Deborah bombs spectacularly because the secondhand embarrassment was so visceral.
Hacks also treats us to some excellent guest appearances this season. Laurie Metcalf is hilarious as “Weed,” Deborah’s tour manager who’s inexplicably really into Pete Wentz and steals every scene she’s in. Harriet Sansom Harris (aka Bebe from Frasier) plays Susan, a former comedy rival of Deborah’s, with just the right balance of wicked humor and humility to keep Deborah in check.
The first six episodes of Hacks’ second season are very much a middle act, with plenty going on, but no concrete resolutions. And that’s perfectly okay; these characters are well-established and enjoyable enough that it’s fun to simply hit the road with Deborah, Ava, and Marcus.
Season 2 of Hacks premieres on HBO Max on May 12.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast and Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.