Max’s Award-Winning Hacks Returns with Its Best Season to Date


I must admit that I went into the third season of Max’s award-winning “Hacks” expecting to see a show on the other side of its peak. How do you keep this premise fresh for that many seasons, especially when it ended with what could have been finality last season? Much to my surprise, the writers figured it out, devising a third-season arc that stands among the best comedy seasons of the show’s era. The excellent writing invigorates the cast, leading Emmy-winner Jean Smart to her best performance on this series (and arguably anywhere). The third season of “Hacks” is funny, unpredictable, and even moving. It’s a show that almost deliberately avoids the traps of its premise, walking up to clichés about age and gender in Hollywood—even cancel culture in a brilliant late-season episode—and then taking a sharp turn away from them.

“Hacks” opened as a show about an over-the-hill stand-up comedy icon named Deborah Vance (Smart) who needed her career rescued by a young writer named Ava (Hannah Einbinder). The third season opens with Deborah in a much different place: so on top of the world that she’s getting her own slot machine in Caesar’s Palace (again), surrounded by crowds who laugh at every single thing she says. Her Netflix special has returned her to the top of the comedy food chain, but she’s cut all ties with Ava, who’s gotten a new job on a “Daily Show”-esque comedy/news program and is madly in love with an actress named Ruby (Lorenza Izzo). Ava seems justifiably bitter at how much Deborah has cut her off, using their partnership to get back on top and then throwing it away.

Of course, the show needs to get Deborah and Ava back together, and so when a window opens in which Vance could possibly live her dream: to replace the soon-to-depart “Late Night” host. Echoing how Vance inspiration Joan Rivers dreamed of late-night relevance, the third season follows Deborah’s efforts to break the glass ceiling of male-dominated post-primetime television. She knows no one writes for her voice quite like Ava, so the effort crashes the two of them back together, making their insecurities more co-dependent than ever. Episodes circle around the political world of Hollywood games, as Deborah tries to impress the power brokers without losing her voice. 

The regular supporting players largely remain the same, including solid turns from show-grounding Carl Clemons-Hopkins and goofy laugh-generating Megan Stalter. Still, the standout in that department this year is show co-creator and writer Paul Downs as Jimmy, Deborah’s agent. He naturally understands the voice and intent of this season better than anyone and nails his biggest arc to date. There are also some excellent guest turns, but the Powers That Be at Max has asked that those stay secret (even if a few gems are already in the preview).

Again, the brilliance of “Hacks”’ third season is in its sense of balance. Every time it threatens to become a little too “Inside Baseball” regarding how late-night TV decisions are made, the writing team returns to Deborah and Ava’s dynamic. Smart has always responded to great writing, and she nails every emotional turn this season—she embeds a sense of age-related urgency in Deborah this year, making for a fascinating counter to Ava. As Deborah points out, everyone always talks about how “one day” they’ll be able to reach the top, but age takes that away from us. “Anything I want to do, I have to do now,” she says. “Or else I’ll never do it. That’s the worst part of getting older.” It makes us root for Deborah even as she arguably uses those around her, especially Ava, to achieve her “one day.” It’s her last chance to do so. Smart knows how to take a character who could have been unsympathetically cruel in the wrong hands and make us understand her.

Thankfully, none of this pathos takes anything away from the jokes. It’s nice to see a show so confident and comfortable in its sense of humor, never remotely desperate in that department. Jokes rarely land in a traditional setup/punchline structure, emerging from character and situation instead of being forced on them. It’s a show about two incredibly different but equally smart and funny people who make each other smarter and funnier. And the team builds this back-and-forth dynamic to such a perfect ending that it completely turned me around on the show’s future. Going into the third season, I wondered where “Hacks” could possibly go. Now I can’t wait to find out.

Whole season screened for review. Returns on Max on May 2nd with two new episodes a week.


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