Some comedies are better off being mean. Hacks, the HBO Max series about aging comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and her unlikely partnership with Ava (Hannah Einbinder), her reluctant millennial joke writer, is a prime example of this; a comedy about two women who strongly dislike each other yet are forced by circumstance to work together. This resulted in a steady stream of jokes: Deborah would effortlessly roast Ava, and Ava would sputter and flail while trying to update Deborah’s outdated feminism in vain. In locking horns, the pair would individually ponder ideas of progress, and how their culture has continued to fail women in much the same ways Deborah was familiar with, in spite of Ava’s wider feminist lexicon. This tension made Hacks compelling, and it’s always in danger of collapsing for a very simple and understandable reason: It all falls apart if the two leads start to like each other too much.
“Meanness” in this context is a source of tension, which all comedies need to survive. Like in season 1, there’s always going to be the generational tension between Ava and Deborah, but that’s the least interesting version of Hacks — the generation gap is extremely well-trod comedy ground, and at its best Hacks attempts to work with more subtle and complex subject matter. From Ava’s perspective, it’s a workplace show about how to work with a boss that hates you and you literally cannot escape. From Deborah’s perspective, it’s about a fight to be taken seriously without caving to the pressure to remain likable at all times. Together, they paint a portrait about what it means to perform femininity via its two white leads.
[Ed. Note: Minor spoilers for season 2 follow]
Season 2 runs their complicated relationship through the road trip gauntlet, as Deborah goes on tour for the first time after years as a Las Vegas institution, and Ava accompanies her to workshop new material. Unfortunately, their newly cozy relationship is threatened by an angry email Ava sent TV producers looking for dirt on Deborah for a show they were making, dirt Ava was happy to provide at the time.
For a little while, Hacks is content to ignore this tension, mostly getting by as a hangout comedy showcase for Smart, whose prolific, decades-long career in television isn’t as underappreciated as her character’s, but absolutely could stand to be a little more acclaimed. As Deborah, Smart delivers a layered performance of a woman who is both rediscovering her own ambition and getting comfortable with the idea that she can still take up a little more space in the world, ageist attitudes and shifting social mores be damned. At the same time, Ava is trying to turn over a new life and be less of a self-centered jerk, even if she’s not quite sure what that looks like — and that pesky email continues to haunt her.
Eventually, Ava’s email does come to light and Hacks begins a very funny running gag of Deborah willfully antagonizing Ava out of revenge — putting an antique dresser in front of her bunk on the tour bus, refusing to let her poop in the bathroom, throwing her kombucha out the window — but road trips have a funny way of bringing people together. That antagonism isn’t sustained for very long.
Critics only received the first six episodes of Hacks eight-episode second season, so there is plenty of time for this relationship to change multiple times, and it’s to the writers’ credit that such dynamism is clear. Part of the road trip story is about Deborah further confronting how the world has changed around her while she stayed ensconced on stage performing the same show night after night. Now she’s out and about, performing for crowds that hate her, running into people she wronged, drinking in the kind of bars she hasn’t set foot in for ages. While it’s fun to watch her be mean to Ava, their animosity — which is entirely one-sided at this point — still drives them both to change. Deborah’s meanness is layered; at times a defensive response to years of being mocked by an indifferent, sexist world, and at others an extension of her own ignorance, which Ava reminds her of, in her own annoying way.
This is what makes the central relationship in Hacks so compelling. It speaks to something that’s true but rarely expressed in TV comedies, which need tension to thrive but can’t have too much out of fear that it would make a serial narrative unsustainable. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible: The pleasure of watching Hacks is in the way the show explores how a person might be pushed to change by someone who hates them just as much as they might be by someone they love.
The first two episodes of Hacks are now streaming on HBO Max, with new episodes on Thursdays.