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Max Comedy Is Back on Top

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Max Comedy Is Back on Top

At the end of its second season, “Hacks” seemed to have written itself into a corner. On the heels of a hit special, veteran stand-up Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) fired Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder), the young writer whose perspective helped push Deborah out of a yearslong creative rut. While harsh, the move was uncharacteristically selfless on Deborah’s part, cutting Ava and her valuable advice loose in an act of tough love. But even as forcing Ava to step out of her shadow showed Deborah’s growth, it also broke up the professional partnership that helped define the Max comedy and propel “Hacks” to acclaim.

This cliffhanger was further prolonged by Smart’s heart surgery and, of course, two concurrent Hollywood strikes. Yet, miraculously, Season 3 — which premieres May 2 — shows little signs of sweat. If any strain came with following through on such a tectonic shift, or getting back in gear after more time than anticipated away, the creative team does an expert job of hiding it. Like a performer with Deborah’s grit and experience, “Hacks” is infectiously confident, deceptively smooth and, most importantly, consistently hilarious. Like many long-form stories caught between the narrative momentum that keeps its creative edge and the stasis incentivized by success, “Hacks” faces conflicting instincts that only grow more apparent as the series matures. Creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky’s solution to these competing prerogatives is to make “Hacks” about such tensions, epitomized by the relationship between two characters who reward continued exploration.

“Hacks” also takes a time jump, a time-honored technique for bypassing an intractable crossroads on the way to a cleaner reset. A year after the events of the Season 2 finale, Deborah is still riding high on her renaissance, while Ava is a co-producer on a “Last Week Tonight”-like topical news show. Both women are, by all appearances, doing quite well on their own: Ava’s shacked up with a new actress girlfriend, sharing a hillside house awash in natural light and native foliage; Deborah’s made the ultra-exclusive mailing list for Tom Cruise’s annual coconut cake, the clearest sign possible that One Has Arrived. But despite the climactic triumph of the special’s success, neither has necessarily achieved their dreams. They’ve just been elevated to a position where those dreams are in closer reach. 

Deborah’s special was built around a more vulnerable and emotionally honest take on her divorce, a messy split in which her marriage quite literally went up in flames. (She used to joke that she burned down her ex-husband’s house after he left her for her own sister; in reality, the blaze was a dryer fire.) But that trauma led to an even deeper wound: Deborah losing the late night show that marked the biggest opportunity of her career. In the world of “Hacks,” as in our own, no woman has ever helmed a major broadcast talk show in the evening hours; Deborah has many inspirations, but the most obvious is Joan Rivers, whose short and ill-fated run on Fox made for a similarly lasting scar. A chance to right this past wrong, combined with a chance encounter between the ex-collaborators at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival, forms the spine of Season 3.

Like many workplace-set series, “Hacks” is not shy about the parallels between romantic and professional relationships. When Ava and Deborah first exchange pleasantries in an elevator, it’s with all the strained formality of two people trying to pretend they don’t know each other’s sore spots and secrets. (Only Deborah snarking on Ava’s appearance thaws the ice. She does dress like she’s about to have lunch on a steel girder!) And when the emotional dam finally breaks, Ava and Deborah start giddily texting like infatuated teens — relapsing into codependency like the last year never happened. When Ava agrees to return to Vegas during her main gig’s hiatus to help Deborah workshop material, her emotional backslide is complete.

In reverting to its status quo, “Hacks” could risk giving into what’s comfortable over what’s difficult, if rewarding. Except the show is acutely aware that this is precisely what Deborah and Ava are doing themselves, much to the chagrin of their loved ones. “You’re always gonna be working for her,” Ava’s girlfriend argues of their sometimes-toxic dynamic, while Deborah’s daughter DJ (Kaitlin Olson) is more empathetic toward her mother’s self-absorption: “I thought you were a narcissist, but you’re actually an addict — like me!” In this slightly more evolved version of the Deborah-Ava relationship, where Ava has some clout of her own and Deborah has learned to be a little more receptive to feedback, “Hacks” pulls off the trick of having it both ways. There’s a settled rhythm that allows for comfort TV staples like major guest stars and a Christmas episode, but also the constant, underlying certainty that the other shoe is eventually bound to drop. 

Along the way, Smart continues to show the biting humor and brittle defensiveness that have won her back-to-back Emmys for the role, while Einbinder comes into her own as Deborah’s righteous, yet perpetually bumbling, foil. With “Hacks” a returning champion and Ava herself more confident and established, the two leads feel on more equal footing than ever. Perhaps relatedly, the show’s supporting players feel increasingly marginal: off in L.A., managers Jimmy (Downs) and Kayla (Meg Stalter) effectively anchor a wackier show-within-a-show about Hollywood mishegas; Poppy Liu was a scene-stealer in prior seasons as Deborah’s personal blackjack dealer, but here she gets just a few. Business manager Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) continues to feel unmoored by Deborah’s refocused attention, but a lovely late-season meditation on what artists owe their longtime supporters — in Deborah’s case, many of them gay men — makes up for brevity with impact.

If the last season finale inspired speculation “Hacks” might be quitting while it’s ahead, there’s no such danger Season 3’s will do the same. Quite the opposite, in fact: this ending suggests the show is just getting started, with plenty more to mine in how Deborah and Ava are affecting one another — not always in a positive sense. “Hacks” has its fun, with resplendent shots of Deborah’s warehouse-sized archival closet and potshots at the modern entertainment industry. (Looking for side work, Ava debates signing onto “a procedural based on ‘Operation.’”) The show still resists the impulse to lean purely into aspiration or empowerment, as strong a sign of its longevity as any. Both Deborah and Ava are often unpleasant people. That’s exactly why they’re such a pleasure to watch.

The first two episodes of “Hacks” Season 3 will premiere on Max on Thursday, May 2, with remaining episodes airing weekly in pairs on Thursdays.

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