Television Review: “Hacks” — Even Funnier on Tour

By Sarah Osman

It is not unusual for most series to hit a sophomore slump, but Hacks manages to avoid this fate, partly because of how deftly it expands on its original premise.

Hacks, HBO

Hannah Einbinder and Jean Smart in Hacks. Photo: HBO.

When we last left Deborah Vance (the incredible Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder), Deborah had used her last night at the Palmetto to try out a more confessional type of comedy. While the act didn’t go swimmingly, Deborah is not about to be deterred. She decides that it is worth taking the new material on the road, and invites Ava, whose father has just died, to go with her. Little does Deborah know that in between their volatile fight and eventual makeup Ava made a horrendous mistake. She got drunk and emailed the producers of a British sitcom she had interviewed for damning stories about Deborah. The central tension of season two is not if the producers will use the material; it’s when Deborah will find out about it.

Season one of Hacks was a hilarious meditation on more than the convoluted world of standup comedy. It also probed the relationship of two women who share more in common than they would like to admit. Season two is just as funny and builds on the latter premise: this odd couple has a lot in common. While season one was mostly limited to Las Vegas and Los Angeles, season two sets Deborah and Ava out on the road, which offers new situations for interactions. Some of the best moments: Deborah and Ava’s stops at random roadside attractions, particularly one at a ‘new age crystal’ store. Deborah’s conversations with her psychic, whom she exchanges stock tips with, are particularly amusing (especially Ava’s shock when told that the tower card is more worrisome in the tarot deck than the death card). In addition to their roadstops, Ava and Deborah also have to deal with their new tour manager, Alice (Laurie Metclaf), who barks out orders and refuses to make any unnecessary stops. Metclaf plays Alice, aka Weed, perfectly; she fits smoothly into the pair’s strange world. The tension Ava feels is palpable; it’s hard not to feel Ava’s apprehension about what will happen when Deborah finds out about the email betrayal. This stab-in-the-back heightens the stakes in their relationship. That level of anxiety was not present in the series’ first season, and it makes their relationship — now under pressure — even more fascinating.

The new locale doesn’t just mean that Deborah and Ava are on the road (literally). Because of his wish to be freer (more on that in a minute), Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) accidentally books Deborah on a lesbian cruise instead of a gay one. Watching Deborah “go full Ellen” (as Ava puts it) is revelatory. When Deborah begins to horribly offend her audience, we see that she is not a God of comedy but very human — and she has a lot of growing left to do. Deborah is usually the one in charge, so it’s fun watching Ava guide her through this strange new world. An additional benefit: the show’s writers nail how there’s something claustrophobic and strange about cruises. Cruise goers correct Ava and Deborah every time they call the cruise a boat and wryly imply that the trip is a giant swingers party.

While Deborah and Ava are the protagonists, the second season spends a bit more time with some of the secondary characters. Jimmy (Paul W. Downs), Deborah and Ava’s long-suffering manager, continues to writhe in season two, especially at the hands of his incompetent assistant, Kayla (Megan Stalter). The pair have to speak to an HR manager after their disastrous trip to Vegas. The manager, played by Martha Kelly (who delivers her lines with the same deadpan delivery as in Baskets) helps make these the funniest scenes in the new season. Every time Jimmy ends up agonizing for his clients is morbidly hysterical, Still, he manages a few wins this season. We even get to learn more about Kayla’s hopes and dreams. Stalter should be given an opportunity to front her own show. Producers at HBO, please pay attention!

The one plotline that doesn’t work as well as the others is Marcus’s. Since he doesn’t join Deborah and Ava on tour, he decides that now is the time to ‘par-tay’ while remaining a boss CEO. He does what anyone would do after a breakup: he buys an adorable puppy and makes much younger friends who have no sense of responsibility. However, this new look doesn’t really work for the character, who has, up until now, been the height of responsibility. No spoilers here, but this interlude doesn’t last forever and Marcus returns to his usual respectable form.

It is not unusual for most series to hit a sophomore slump, but Hacks manages to avoid this fate, partly because of how deftly it expands on its original premise. I’m hopeful that the series will once again be recognized by the Emmy Awards, and that we will be blessed with yet another season. Deborah and Ava have barely explored all the permutations of trouble they can get into. Here’s hoping the ladies continue their tour well into the future.

Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, NC. In addition to writing for the Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman

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