Deborah Vance embodies the difference between a punitive mentor and a terrible mentor. If you’re lucky, you may never meet either of these guys. But if you’re lucky – and tough enough to withstand an outburst of rage or 20 years – you can learn invaluable lessons from someone as relentless as Jean Smart’s force of nature.
In the second season of “Hacks”, Deborah is particularly brutal towards her protege Ava (Hannah Einbinder) without ever completely violating the agreement on which they fell. Showrunners Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky and Lucia Aniello deserve much of the credit for steering the comedy on that line between funny and devastating, but none of their efforts would succeed if Smart and Einbinder weren’t a team. so phenomenal.
These new episodes reaffirm why Smart’s Emmy win for his first-season performance was indisputable, and make the case for a repeat.
Ava is still boring, but her mistakes have also made her less brash.
But Statsky and Downs deepen the trusty character profile established by Einbinder, allowing her performance to develop her comedy writer’s vulnerability without losing the too-cool-for-that right that continues to get Ava in trouble. Ava is always boring, but her mistakes have also made her less brash and thoughtful enough to teach Deborah a few things about herself.
In a way, it enhances those perfections of generational justice that some people had trouble with, especially in the early episodes where the character exemplified some of the worst millennial cliches imaginable. Einbinder’s deft development of Ava’s quirks and flaws led us to realize that, to quote another famous figure in her twenties, she is not the voice of her generation but a voice, and so annoying that even his contemporaries can’t stand it.
Ava still has a place in Deborah’s inner circle despite a vicious betrayal at the end of the first season, a betrayal that still floats in the ether as the premiere picks up where last year’s finale left off. : with the two women mid-flight on Deborah’s private jet, their shared future up in the air.
“Hacks” doubles down on its cross-generational strengths in these new episodes by leveling the playing field where Deborah and Ava team up and face off simultaneously. Deborah is on a downward slope, having tried out the new faith-based material that Ava encouraged her to explore during her final show as Queen of the Las Vegas Strip, to bomb beautifully.
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So as they both hit the road for Deborah’s next studio show, spending most of their days in a tour bus (but luxurious – it’s still Deborah’s show, after all) , they have no choice but to be painfully authentic with each other. This often results in a raw and bloody frankness. These moments also require Deborah and Ava to look at each other carefully, which isn’t necessarily fatal, but does require them to destroy any impressions of themselves they might cling to.
Elsewhere, the script adds tenderness to the strained relationship between Ava and Deborah’s shared agent, Jimmy (played with a wonderful sense of knowing by Downs) and Kayla, Meg Stalter’s clueless assistant whom Jimmy can never Discard.
The beautiful magic act of “Hacks” is that there’s never a question as to why Ava is staying with Deborah.
The beautiful magic act of “Hacks” is that there’s never a question as to why Ava is staying with Deborah, especially after the writers responded to Ava’s betrayal with a signature Deborah Vance twist. designed to inflict maximum agony. (Even that punch arrives wrapped in Smart’s delivery of velvet gloves: “This will be a good learning experience for you!” Deborah chirps as Ava lifts her jaw from her lap.)
They may hurt each other, but they also understand each other better than the rest of the world. Only now do they understand that this mutual understanding is not stimulating – it is at best a crutch, and more precisely, an insurmountable blockage.
The scenes establishing this section of their roadmap are equal parts masterclass and screenwriting lesson, with the stars’ performances superbly infusing tension into their storyline without sacrificing comedic value. In a heartbreaking moment, he realizes to Deborah that she wasn’t drawn to Ava’s writing because she understands her, but because she’s as selfish and cruel as she is. .
Because the truth is, Deborah Vance is a bully, and of the worst kind: the one who thinks she’s the victim. Every person in her life is on her payroll and would never be around her if their livelihoods didn’t depend on it, Ava included. There should be quotes around those last two sentences because they come directly from an episode’s dialogue.
It is also the thesis of a season that revolves around Deborah’s odyssey to ensure a return. In Ava, Deborah sees an opportunity to up her game and teach someone else how to be better. In Deborah, Ava sees a teacher and career lifeline but also a means of penance. But it is also clear that these women love and respect each other.
Smart has a cosmic glow in the scenes where Deborah lets the purple stains on her mind slip through her battle-ready facade.
Smart has a cosmic glow in the scenes where Deborah lets the purple stains on her mind slip through her battle-ready facade. And the actor plays up those moments with heartbreaking subtlety, dropping Deborah’s pristine mask ever so slightly as she’s confronted with the truth about who she is.
It’s in the way she cups her eyes or drops the confident smile that always slightly enhances her expression. When she follows up those moments with return shots with harder hits, whether through the perfect punchline or an unpolished truth, it’s impossible to pay attention to anything else.
Maybe that sounds like hyperbole, but anyone watching will see that’s not the case.
It’s also no exaggeration to say that this new season explodes the energy that “Hacks” builds in its first season by pressing harder on Deborah’s imperfections, accurately portraying the courage and hard work that it takes to start over as a woman in a field where her male peers are rolling on their laurels. For once, Deborah feels what it’s like to be overshadowed, whether by her ego, her prejudices or, at a low point of clarification, an animal’s placenta.
The new season also pushes Deborah’s newly minted but eternally exasperated CEO Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) into the unknown, giving Clemons-Hopkins more opportunities to break free from their deadpan performance. They are great as a sensible executive, but also wonderful for getting rid of tightness. And when they and other guest stars bump into Deborah and Ava or join them and Mark Indelicato’s eternally energetic Damien on the tour bus, the second season finds an unexpected new gear to swing through.
Throughout, he asks if a person can truly be their best self in a profession that rewards self-preservation and Darwinist levels of wickedness, and if so, what does it take to master this lesson? Answering these questions lifts “Hacks” to greater heights by knocking Deborah and Ava down to Earth, demanding that they find a new way to get high without destroying themselves during the ride.
The second season of “Hacks” premieres with two episodes Thursday, May 24 on HBO Max, with new episodes debuting weekly.
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