Thursday, May 26, 2022

Jean Smart reminds us to fail

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“Hacks” Season 2 bombs – but in a good way.

The show itself doesn’t crash and burn, but lets its characters repeatedly fail in new and surprising ways: Veteran comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) flops in comedy clubs while she tries to remake her act; her first protégé Ava (Hannah Einbender) fails to remake her life; Deb’s CEO Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) fails to recover from a relationship; and Deb’s manager Jimmy (co-creator Paul W. Downs) fails to keep her happy.

HBO Max’s acerbic, bold series is one of many cynical comedies that don’t shy away from mixing darkness with humor. And that tension between what makes us laugh and what makes us cry is part of what made the first season brilliant – and the winner of three Emmy Awards for Smart’s performance, writing and directing.

“Hacks” returns for Season 2 (streaming Thursdays, ★★★ out of four) as a more self-assured show, even if its characters have never been less sure of themselves. The darkness is deeper and sometimes more despairing this year, but the jokes are just as frequent, and maybe even a bit more cathartic. Deborah spends most of the new 10-episode season trying to revitalize her career with new material, but “Hacks” pulls off a strong sophomore year by thoughtfully doing more of the same.

The comedy picks up immediately where we left off last season, with Deborah and Ava together as a writing team once again and ready to take the new act on tour after Ava’s ultimate betrayal of her boss: She had emailed a list of terrible stories about Deborah to the writers of a TV show.

More:The 50 best TV shows on HBO Max in May: Hooray for ‘Hacks’ Season 2!

Weighed down by her guilt and desperately trying to fix her massive error of judgment, Ava is no longer the snarky foil to Deborah’s self-centered brashness. She’s humbled and harried, putting on a show of penance even as she sometimes refuses to learn. Deborah, meanwhile, struggles with her self-confidence as her new material – confessional, emotional stuff – doesn’t connect with audiences at comedy clubs and state fairs. Neither actress misses a beat as their characters change; they’re both comfortable with every line of dialogue and heightened emotion.

Johnny Sibilly as Wilson and Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Marcus in Season 2 of "Hacks."

Deborah and Ava’s story is on the road, but back in Las Vegas, Marcus embarks on a path of self-destruction after he and Wilson (Johnny Sibilly) broke up. His life devolves into a haze of partying that disrupts his work and leaves him lower, not healed. Clemons-Hopkins, who received an Emmy nomination last year, goes to heartbreaking and raw places as Marcus loses his way. His Season 1 work was excellent, but in the new episodes he is the clear standout. Also still popping up in the background are Jimmy and his wild and willful assistant Kayla (Megan Stalter), as their absurdist power struggle reaches new heights.

Megan Stalter as Kayla and Paul W. Downs as Jimmy in Season 2 of "Hacks."

The best TV shows of 2021:From ‘Hacks’ to ‘Ted Lasso’ to ‘Squid Game’

“Hacks” remains a show that appeals to multiple generations, not just because of the age range of its cast but because it intimately understands what it’s like to be an aging woman not ready to retire and a young woman just starting out. Both involve a lot of trying and a lot of failing.

Sometimes it feels good to bomb. It feels even better if later, you kill.

How to watch:‘Hacks’ Season 2

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