‘Hacks’ Season 2 Review: Deborah and Ava Hit the Road:

“Happy couples ruin TV shows.” This is a sentiment I have heard a lot over the years from television writers whose series feature a romantic component: . They believe that the pursuit is much more fun than the actual relationship, and that once the sexual tension gets resolved, it’s harder to generate interesting stories. Sometimes, this bears out: Jim and Pam on: The Office: were rarely as entertaining once they got married as when he was pining for her. But a lot of times, it does not: Leslie and Ben on: Parks and Rec:

were just as amusing as a couple as they were when they weren’t allowed to date. The show most often cited as proof of the theory, oddly, is:

Moonlighting: , where Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd’s characters slept together a few times but never actually entered a relationship. If anything, that show’s downfall can be blamed on how rarely the two interacted in later seasons, due to both the actors disliking one another, as well as Willis’ burgeoning movie career.Really, though, it’s less about relationship status than it is about the writers’ ability to generate conflict while staying true to the characters. The problem with Jim, for instance, wasn’t so much that he and Pam were married, but that he was otherwise still acting the way he had when he was a bored, single guy in his mid-twenties, and he began to seem obnoxious as a result. Will-they-or-won’t-they is a simple, proven template for creating dramatic or comedic stakes, but it’s not the only way to do that. And handled properly, stories about a rock-solid relationship can be just as interesting and exciting as ones about the blush of first love: There has rarely been a more stable television couple than Coach and Mrs. Coach on:

Friday Night Lights:and there has rarely been a more entertaining one.

Hacks: , which begins its second season next week on HBO Max, is not technically a romance. Its two main characters, legendary comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and young comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder), are co-workers, not love interests. But a different kind of will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic played out over the course of that comedy’s Emmy-winning first season: Will these two women, separated by generations, worldviews, sexualities, temperaments, and even comedic sensibilities, ever become friends, or will they just continue arguing forever? I had some concerns with: Hacks: Season One, tied mostly to whether the jokes told by either main character were funny enough to justify the women’s career paths. But the chemistry between old pro Smart and newcomer Einbinder was so electric that the caliber of the fake comedy ultimately did not matter very much. As Deborah and Ava grew used to each other’s rhythms over the course of those initial 10 episodes, I started rooting for them to make it work in the same way I once did for, say, Seth and Summer on The OC: And when Ava’s father died in the finale and Deborah came unexpectedly to the funeral to lend some emotional support, it seemed that Hacks: creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky recognized that their show was at its strongest when Deborah and Ava’s friendship was strong, too.

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is not exactly without conflict or stakes on those occasions when Deborah and Ava are allies, after all. Deborah’s age, gender, and position in a rapidly-shifting entertainment landscape frequently make her an underdog, despite her enormous wealth and fame. And some of the first season’s most potent dramatic and / or comedic moments had the two working together against the world.

Instead, the finale ended on an uncomfortable cliffhanger: Ava and Deborah’s shared manager Jimmy (Downs) informed Ava that, while under the influence and mad about a fight with Deborah, she had sent an email filled with embarrassing stories about Deborah to the producers of a new comedy about a very Deborah Vance-esque horrible boss. Right when the two were getting along better than ever, here was this ticking time bomb set to detonate in Season Two and make things between them so much worse. I just want them to be friends! Is that so wrong? So I entered: Hacks: Season Two with some trepidation, hoping that Aniello, Downs, and Statsky would simply forget that the email existed, and fearing that they would instead use it as an excuse to reset Deborah and Ava’s relationship to its factory settings. Neither is quite what happens, though. Without spoiling the exact plot mechanics, the email’s existence does come to light, and it does impact Deborah’s feelings about Ava, and vice versa. But:

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uses the email not to undermine their dynamic, but to make it richer and even more complicated. It’s a pretty impressive threading of the needle.

If anything, Season Two leans even more into the series’ strengths. Having lost her casino residency, Deborah is eager to hit the road immediately to try out the new, more confessional material she and Ava have worked on together. So after a quick pit stop in Vegas – which allows Jean Smart to deliver a classic sports-movie speech at an MMA fight featuring the new husband of her daughter DJ (Kaitlin Olson) – Deborah and Ava begin traveling the country together, first in Deborah’s car, and then on her tricked-out tour bus. There is no getting away for Ava, or for Deborah, and the close quarters force them to keep working through their issues. It’s a smart embrace of the core concept, even if it comes at the expense of the show’s supporting cast. With our heroines on the road, it becomes harder to cut away to Deborah’s business executive Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) as he falls apart following a bad breakup, or to Jimmy as he continues to struggle with the incompetence of his assistant Kayla (Megan Stalter). There’s funny stuff in both subplots, but they feel increasingly tangential. (When Marcus eventually joins Deborah on the road, his material almost immediately clicks again.) And as Deborah and Ava work to hone their new material,

Hacks: itself begins to feel sharper. Both the act and Deborah’s off-the-cuff insults feel more plausibly funny, strengthening the illusion of Smart as a comedy legend. (And on those occasions when Deborah bombs – like a mortifying set on a lesbian cruise that you may need to watch from behind your couch – she very realistically bombs.) And the writers simply seem to understand the specific weirdness of each lead more than before , like Deborah’s unfettered love for seemingly trashy things like yard sales and gas station snacks. Pairing Smart and Einbinder together even more than before also brings out new depths in both performances. There is some meaty dramatic material here – much of it stemming from the email twist I admittedly did not want – and Einbinder not only holds her own against Smart, but often winds up making the biggest emotional impact. The show also gives her even more opportunities for physical comedy (Ava is a:

terrible: dancer, especially when high). Smart, meanwhile, feels more comfortable than ever in Deborah’s expensive shoes, generating big laughs from a subtle change of expression or shift in vocal tone. So, no, it is not exactly Happily Ever After for Deborah and Ava in: Hacks: Season Two. But whether they are getting along or not, they are almost always together, and that’s what makes:

Hacks: sing. Happy couples do not automatically ruin TV shows, but couples who go through a lot of highs and lows can be a blast. The first two episodes of:

Hacks: Season Two begin streaming May 12 on HBO Max, with two additional episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen the first six of eight episodes.

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