Hacks season 2: the subversive fantasy of letting your job consume you

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hacks is a show about comedy, but its best bits aren’t funny at all.

Its stellar first season is both an introduction and a shrewd portrayal of Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), an aging Vegas headliner manipulating the terms of her job while simultaneously reflecting on her fears of obsolescence and her ambition to grow. to be loved. All of Deborah’s desires and fears overlap, bleeding across every possible personal and professional boundary. Somehow, this force of nature finds clarity in a boring bisexual millennial named Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a comedy writer who would be somewhat funny on Twitter.

The wake-up call Ava brings is not pleasant. Ava thinks Deborah is on cruise control, playing it safe with her comedy because Vegas crowds don’t care to be brash. Ava is right and Deborah knows it, but acknowledging it is humbling. It’s embarrassing not only because Ava is authoritative and insufferable and admitting she’s right would only exacerbate those qualities, but because it also means Deborah Vance has lost touch with who she is.

For Ava, writing for Deborah is humbling in her own way. She alienates others and she hasn’t made a name for herself; she has no other options.

Deborah and Ava’s symbiotic relationship, the weird bits and the volatile moments in particular, bring each of them closer to a better sense of who they are — a gift, especially in the lonely landscape that is comedy.

Deborah and Ava take a road trip in Season 2 of hacks.
Hacks/HBO Max

The fantastic second season builds on this initial chapter. hacks hits the ground running, with Deborah and Ava returning from Ava’s father’s funeral in preparation for Deborah’s North American tour. After bombing for her latest performance at the Palmetto, her home on the Strip, Deborah knows her gear isn’t good yet. They both need a challenge. So they do the logical thing: Deb and Ava get on a bus. (A luxury tourist bus, but still.)

Voyages of self-discovery are an obsession in American art. Worn out by life, protagonist after protagonist, they exchange the comforts of their lives for the woods, the canyons or places where they can relearn how to eat, pray and love. These uncomfortable hikes become opportunities to crystallize an examination of conscience that nourishes the soul and rekindles the spark of life. Maybe they will even find love.

Deborah Vance wouldn’t mind, but she just wants better jokes.

So she swaps cosmopolitan Las Vegas (not to be confused with the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas) for a more bucolic America, like Memphis, a lesbian cruise and a state fair in one of the Springfields – harsh and punishing places . Deborah hopes to sharpen her beards, refine her transitions and find the crunch in her pulverized punchlines.

The road trip makes Deborah’s inner struggles real. She struggles to connect with her audience, and these uncomfortable places have their own defensive challenges, like cultural gaps or an audience that isn’t quite Deborah’s demographic. Each is more alien to Deborah than the last. She bombs some. She does better with others. Aside from a few pure slapstick moments, we don’t actually see her perform — a deliberate choice.

hacks never bothered to convince you that Deborah is the funniest woman alive. It’s always been a show about a woman realizing who she is and being honest with that person, whoever that person is. A night of laughs with an audience won’t solve that.

Jean Smart’s performance was (correctly) filled with praise, but I’m still impressed with the way she imbues Deborah Vance with a delicate dignity. It can manifest as something as small as an unsupervised look in a mirror.

Or it unfolds so powerfully that it’s all you think about long after the episode ends.

In the Springfield State Fair episode, Deborah meets an old rival who has given up acting. Her friend is now a lifeless grandmother, drawing Deborah’s pity. But after their brief encounter, when Deborah realizes that her former compatriot is actually happy with her choices, Smart can be seen clouding the pride in Deborah’s eyes and filling her face with doubt.

In those little moments, you can see flashes of the life Deborah Vance lived and almost relate to that mean, whimsical woman you absolutely weren’t supposed to see.

Deborah is melancholy, but she doesn’t want for a second to be able to live a full life without comedy. Instead, her regret is not living a comedy-filled life without the distraction of family, friends, and weddings.

The way Deborah interprets the world around her – its woes, its tragedy, its happiness – is through comedy, a notoriously fickle art form. If Deborah’s life flashed before her eyes, it would be stand-up, her late-night show, her missed opportunities, her Vegas residency. The montage would not include her husband, her child, her sister’s betrayal, or her husband’s death. For Deborah, nothing really matters if it’s not related to comedy.

Kaitlin Olson and Jean Smart in hacksa show that, despite its name, is not about cybersecurity.
Hacks/HBO Max

hacks works this season because you slowly realize that this road trip is a total gamble for Deborah. There is no backup plan. Who she is, the way she needs the world to see her, her understanding of joy and pain – it’s all in play. This comedy tour is about her own survival.

But is it too macabre, too narcissistic to admit it?

So it makes sense that Deborah surrounded herself with people like her dedicated CEO Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) and Ava, her hard-headed protege. These two people – by choice or because they have no other options – are just like Deborah: completely consumed and defined by work. Marcus uses Deborah’s reliance on him to run her business as an anchor; it keeps him from spinning. Ava’s gig with Deborah is more of a lifesaver. Writing for Deb is the only thing going on in her life, as Ava is indecently good at seizing opportunities.

Like attracts, I suppose. However, Ava and Marcus might disagree. They have just enough distance (for now) to see each other in Deborah or not. They are slowly moving towards a point of no return, or if they are lucky, a “stop before it’s too late” moment.

But hacks does not quite fall into this mode. It’s more a question of: Are Marcus and Ava built like Deborah or not? Could they have a life dedicated only to work and be happy? Wouldn’t it be nice to be so in love with your work and know that’s what you want to do? That, in its own way, is a little subversive fantasy.

The first two episodes of hacks are available to stream on HBO Max.

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