HBO’s brutal comedy “Hacks” returns with raw, gory candor and reaches even greater heights

HBO’s brutal comedy “Hacks” returns with raw, gory candor and reaches even greater heights

Deborah Vance embodies the difference between a punitive mentor and an absolutely horrific mentor. If you’re lucky, you may never experience both types. But if you’re lucky — and resilient enough to withstand a tantrum or 20 — you can learn invaluable lessons from someone as relentless as Jean Smart’s force of nature.

In the second season of “Hacks,” Deborah takes a particularly brutal approach to her protégé, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), without ever completely violating the agreement the two reached. Showrunners Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky, and Lucia Aniello deserve credit for navigating comedy precisely on the line between whimsical and devastating, but none of their efforts would land if Smart and Einbinder weren’t such a phenomenal team.

These new episodes reaffirm why Smart’s Emmy win was undeniable for her performance in season one and make for a repeat.

Ava is still annoying, but her mistakes have also made her less impetuous.

But Statsky and Downs deepen the solid character profile that Einbinder established, allowing their performance to stretch their comedy writer’s vulnerability without losing the too-cool pretension that keeps Ava in trouble. Ava is still annoying, but her mistakes have also made her less boisterous and thoughtful enough to teach Deborah a few things about herself.

In a way, this improves on the perfection of generational equity that some people struggled with, especially in early episodes where the character embodied some of the worst imaginable clichés of the millennia. Einbinder’s skillful development of Ava’s quirks and flaws led us to understand that, to quote another famous 20-year-old figure, she isn’t the voice of her generation, but a Voice and a selfishness so annoying even her contemporaries can’t stand her.

Despite a vicious betrayal at the end of season one, Ava still has a place in Deborah’s inner circle, still floating in the ether as the premiere picks up right where last year’s finale ended: with the two women mid-flight on Deborah’s private jet, their future together in the air.

Hacks doubles its cross-generational strengths in these new episodes, leveling the playing field on which Deborah and Ava team up and compete simultaneously. Deborah is in a downtrend after trying out the new confessional footage Ava encouraged her to explore at her last show as Queen of the Las Vegas Strip, only to bomb great.

RELATED: ‘Hacks’ grasps how ageism creeps up on women and revels in slapping a sucker

So when the two head to Deborah’s next show, spending most of their time on a tour bus (but a luxurious one — after all, it’s still Deborah’s show), they have no choice but to be painfully honest with each other. This often leads to raw, gory frankness. These moments also require Deborah and Ava to take a hard look at themselves that isn’t necessarily fatal, but they do urge them to destroy whatever impression of themselves they’re holding on to.

Elsewhere, the script lends some tenderness to the strained relationship between Ava and Deborah’s mutual agent Jimmy (played by Downs with a wonderful sense of knowledge) and Kayla, Meg Stalter’s completely clueless assistant who Jimmy can never get rid of.

The beautiful magical act of “Hacks” is that there’s never any question as to why Ava stays with Deborah.

The beautiful magical act of “Hacks” is that there’s never any question as to why Ava stays with Deborah, especially after the writers respond to Ava’s betrayal with a signature Deborah Vance twist designed to inflict maximum agony. (Even this wallop arrives wrapped in Smart’s velvet glove delivery: “It’ll be a good learning experience for you!” Deborah chirps as Ava lifts her jawbone from her lap.)

They may hurt each other, but they also get along better than the rest of the world. Only now do they understand that this mutual understanding is not empowering – it is at best a crutch, and more precisely, an insurmountable block.

The scenes that establish this segment of their roadmap are equal parts acting masterclass and scripting class, with the star performances doing a great job of bringing tension to their plot without sacrificing their comedic value. In a harrowing moment, Deborah realizes that she wasn’t drawn to Ava’s lyrics because she understands them, but because she is as selfish and cruel as she is.

Because the truth is, Deborah Vance is a bully, and of the worst kind: one who thinks she’s the victim. Every person in her life is on her payroll and would never be anywhere near her if her livelihood didn’t depend on it, Ava included. These last two sentences should be placed in quotation marks since they are taken directly from an episode’s dialogue.

That’s also the thesis of a season revolving around Deborah’s odyssey to secure a comeback. In Ava, Deborah sees an opportunity to improve her game and teach someone else how to do it better. Ava sees Deborah as a teacher and career lifeline, but also a means of penance. But it’s also clear that these women love and respect each other.

Smart has a cosmic glow in the scenes where Deborah lets the purple smudges on her mind slide through her battle-ready facade.

Smart has a cosmic glow in the scenes where Deborah lets the purple smudges on her mind slide through her battle-ready facade. And the actor plays those moments with a rending subtlety, allowing Deborah’s flawless mask to fall ever so slightly as she confronts the truth of who she is.

It’s the way she narrows her eyes or loses that confident grin that always supports her expression a little. When she follows those moments of return fire with harder hits, either through the perfect punch line or an unpolished truth, it’s impossible to pay attention to anything else.

Maybe that comes off as an exaggeration, 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” built in season one, pushing harder on Deborah’s imperfections and depicting exactly the courage and effort it takes to to start afresh as a woman in an arena where there are men riding on their laurels. For once, Deborah feels what it’s like to be overshadowed, whether by her ego, her prejudices, or, at a clarifying low point, an animal’s afterbirth.

The new season also pushes Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), Deborah’s newly minted but perpetually annoyed CEO, into the unknown, giving Clemons-Hopkins more opportunities to break free from her dead performance. You are excellent as a no-nonsense leader, but also wonderful at shedding your tension. And when she and other guest stars cross paths with Deborah and Ava, or join them and Mark Indelicato’s perpetually energetic Damien on the tour bus, season two finds an unexpected new gear to shift into.

The question throughout is whether a person can truly be their best self in a profession that rewards self-preservation and Darwinian meanness, and if so, what does it take to master this lesson? Answering these questions propels “Hacks” to greater heights as Deborah and Ava crash to earth, demanding they find a new way to ascend without ruining each other on the ride.

The two-episode season of “Hacks” debuts Thursday, May 24 on HBO Max, with new episodes arriving weekly.

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