Roush Review: ‘Hacks’ Avoids Sophomore Slump as It Hits the Road

Jean Smart, Hannah Einbinder in Hacks
Karen Ballard/HBO Max

Wherever Jean Smart goes, in her deservedly Emmy-winning role as defiant stand-up comedy legend Deborah Vance, I will eagerly follow. In the second season of the glorious HBO Max show-biz fable Hacks, that entails a rollicking cross-country tour as she hones a risky and revealing new act, having been unceremoniously dumped from her longtime Las Vegas residency.

Along for the very bumpy ride: millennial writer and sidekick Ava (Hannah Einbinder), who has her own soul-baring to do. In the back-to-back episodes opening Season 2, she lives in fear that their working and personal relationship will never be the same should Deborah learn about the drunken e-mail Ava sent following a bitter spat, exposing her boss’ worst behaviors to TV producers eager for insider gossip. To the show’s credit, this Sword of Damocles hanging plot strand is resolved fairly quickly in an explosive but satisfying manner.

Jean Smart and Hannah Eindbinder in Hacks

Karen Ballard/HBO Max

In her act, Deborah jokes, “Betrayal is the worst feeling in the world. (A beat.) And I’ve woken up during a colonoscopy.” But her skin has been thickened by experience, and as she observes to Ava, “You’re good at writing for me … because you’re just like me. You’re as selfish and cruel as I am.” Which maybe isn’t fair or even entirely accurate.

Still, Hacks is a show about women of very different generations doing what it takes to survive, and as Deborah tries to be more honest in her comedy and a humbled (thus more endearing) Ava vows to be a better person, the series avoids any sophomore slump by deepening the character development. And the laughs.

Whether playing small clubs from Flagstaff to Memphis, a rural state fair or a gay cruise — unfortunately for Deb, not populated by adoring men but by wary lesbians — theirs is a trial by humiliation and perseverance, the hard-knock life of a nomadic comic, albeit on a plush tour bus. (For several episodes, The Conners Laurie Metcalf is a riot as their gruff tour manager.)

A shining star since her Designing Women breakthrough more than 30 years ago, Smart tackles every aspect of Deborah’s complicated personality — her vanity, insecurity, sexuality and unquestionable talent — with passion and wit. Einbinder also shines, now written less as a pretentious foil than as a willing apprentice whose dues-paying verges on the slapstick.

Whenever Hacks shifts its focus back to L.A. and the women’s long-suffering manager Jimmy (series co-creator Paul W. Downs), it’s on overly familiar satirical ground, although his HR conflicts with exasperating assistant Kayla (Megan Stalter), the boss’ flighty daughter, are amusing. I always find myself yearning to get back on the road and watch Deborah and Ava sweat, working out their next joke.

Hacks, Season 2 Premiere, Thursday, May 12, HBO Max