Why ‘Hacks’ Earned Its Season 3 Renewal, Despite Season 2’s Perfect Ending (Column)

·5-min read

As the final minutes of “Hacks” Season 2 ticked by, it was hard to shake the feeling that they just might mark the final minutes of “Hacks,” period. With Deborah (the incomparable Jean Smart) finally tapping in to a more personal and rewarding vein of her comedy to huge success, before pushing Ava (the underrated Hannah Einbinder) out of the nest to forge her own path in Hollywood, the series easily could’ve ended there. Even Deborah’s CEO Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) and agent Jimmy (Paul W. Downs) got their versions of a happily-ever-after, with Marcus taking active steps toward balancing his work and personal life and Jimmy quitting his agency to forge ahead with his own.

With so much of the show seemingly wrapped up in as neat a bow as these chaotic characters may ever have, some might have seen its Season 3 renewal as a bit of a surprise. But the key to what “Hacks” could do next may just lie in the rises and falls of Season 2, which blew everything from the first season up to find juicier opportunities in the rubble. If Season 3 does the same, “Hacks” will have more than enough material to work with without losing its grip on what makes it so good.

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The second season of “Hacks” is, at first, a slower burn. Chronicling failure after failure from Las Vegas to Tucson to Oklahoma City, the once almighty Deborah Vance keeps falling on her face as she tries to hone her new, more personal stand-up act. She and Ava know it could be good. But there’s something missing, and whatever it is stays stubbornly out of reach until the moment Deborah finally stumbles upon it in an earnest 40-year-old’s bed. (Shoutout to Devon Sawa for this truly pivotal guest turn, and for slipping into it easily enough that I didn’t realize I had just seen Devon Sawa romance Jean Smart until the credits.) Watching Deborah work for laughs like she hadn’t in years and Ava face the consequences of her actions like never before made for a season of deeper, harder earned revelations.

In its first, highly lauded season, “Hacks” had 10 episodes (versus the second’s eight) to explore Deborah and Ava’s parallel ambitions and psyches, indulge in the self-conscious gilt of Vegas casino culture, and flesh out supporting players like Marcus, Jimmy, and Deborah’s wayward daughter, DJ (Kaitlin Olson, scene-stealing as always). Created by “Broad City” alums Downs, Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky, the HBO Max series was insightful, and it was hilarious — but its sharpest jokes always lay outside the actual comedy any of the characters were writing and/or performing. It’s a tall order to replicate the particular rhythms of standup comedy within a scripted narrative, and in its first season, “Hacks” mostly sidestepped that problem by showing Deborah’s residency act at its most blunt and repetitive. The standup was fine, but the characters being funnier went a long way. As the second season dug into the nuts and bolts of crafting a standup set rather than relying on the eventual punchlines, it more seamlessly married the comedy within the show with the broader framework of the show itself. As Ava — via her dad, via the Philadelphia Sixers — put it, Season 2 of “Hacks” trusted the process by making the process the point.

In its second season, “Hacks” upended itself completely, cracking open the characters to let them sift through their guts for the truth. Yes, Deborah was still in charge, but without the safety net of her homebase and stalwart standup set, she could get only a cool 75% of what she wanted versus the usual 100%. (If you’ve ever worked for anyone similarly rich and ensconced in their creature comforts, you know even this seemingly high batting average would result in a catastrophic ego blow.) Ava, determined to be better, abandoned some of her Season 1 era self-righteous nihilism to become a veritable bleeding heart by the end of Season 2. Marcus, robbed of his all-consuming work routine while Deborah went on tour, swung wildly toward hedonism only to steady himself in a more comfortable space in between. Even Jimmy, dubbed “Captain Planet” by his office full of toxic bros, battled his way out of a rut into a more exciting stage of his career, albeit one where he still can’t shake his chaotic assistant (Meg Stalter, singular).

In fact, the final two episodes of Season 2 hurtle toward these endgames so quickly, resolving so many threads with enough urgency, that it was only natural to wonder if this was, in fact, “Hacks”‘ way of saying goodbye. But in ending on Ava wistfully watching Deborah hawk her wares on QVC (to the strains of Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger,” no less), “Hacks” makes it clear that not all is completely settled. Ava still misses Deborah, Deborah still has to find a way to stay on top, Marcus still has to learn how to let people into his life beyond a passing glances, and Jimmy still has to work alongside Kayla (arguably the most daunting task of all). In one of the finale’s most moving, revealing scenes, Deborah and DJ have what might be their first truly honest conversation ever, nodding toward a potentially very different relationship down the line. And look, if “Hacks” were to end without giving us more details on what happened in Monaco between Deb and casino owner Marty (Christopher McDonald), I would simply never forgive it. As long as we’ve known them, none of these characters have been content to…well, be content. Their ambition, talent, and restlessness gets them every time, making them itch the second they sit still too long.

So, sure, “Hacks” could have ended with Season 2; it would have been a good ending, too. But as long as the team behind “Hacks” wants to keep turning its world upside-down, I trust them to find newly innovative ways to steady it all over again.

“Hacks” is currently available to stream on HBO Max.

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