Hacks Hits Its Stride in a Breakthrough Third Season That Surpasses the First Two

Deborah Vance and Ava Daniels can’t seem to quit each other. For two seasons, the love-hate relationship between ’ imperious, old-school comedian, Deborah (Jean Smart), and the woke, down-on-her-luck, 20-something comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) hired to update her material fueled some of TV’s funniest and most provocative humor about people who tell jokes for a living. Then, for a year or so, it seemed as though . First, Smart needed heart surgery. Just days after she’d recovered and the Emmy-winning series had gone back into production, the .

Hence the two-year wait for Season 3, whose first two episodes debuted May 2 on Max. Such a disjointed production schedule could have been disastrous for a show that relies so heavily on the chemistry of its cast—and especially between its intergenerational leads. Fortunately, the actors seem to have flourished amid adversity, just as Deborah and Ava often do. Creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky have crafted Hacks’ best season yet, one that allows the characters to grow without killing their spiky, push-pull bond. Smart and Einbinder further elevate that story arc with a rapport that feels more natural and intimate than ever.

When we last saw the divine Ms. V, her career was soaring on the strength of a smash-hit, self-released special in which she dropped her dated stand-up schtick and told the funny, sad, real stories she’d amassed as a pioneering woman in a male-dominated entertainment industry. It was Ava who pushed Deborah to push herself, and Deborah thanked her by pushing her out of the nest. In the Season 2 finale, the diva fired a protégée she’d come to respect, in hopes that the younger woman would seize the opportunity to start making her own dreams come true.

But Hacks would not be Hacks if its stars spent all their screen time apart. Season 3 picks up one year after its predecessor left off, as the Vance-aissance continues with Deborah’s appearance on—what else?—the . Things are going great for Ava, too. She’s secured a staff job writing for a comedy-news show in the vein of ’s Last Week Tonight and is living with her actress girlfriend, Ruby (Lorenza Izzo). Then she runs into Deborah at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival and they bond over .

Ava misses working with a boss who can certainly be a self-absorbed pain but who also really gets her sense of humor. Deborah is surrounded by sycophants, from the two mediocre writers she hired to replace Ava to the stylist who co-signs her bad fashion choices to audiences who laugh appreciatively even when she isn’t cracking a joke, and longs for a collaborator who will tell her the unvarnished truth. So, with Deborah in the running for her dream job as a late-night host, Ava agrees to spend her show’s three-month hiatus helping her prepare.

Deborah’s new place at the center of the comedy universe gives Aniello, Downs, and Statsky an excuse to survey the strange, fragmented and often-contradictory state of that art form in 2024. There’s a roast that brings both hired-gun comics and Deborah’s aggrieved adult daughter, DJ (Kaitlin Olson), together to say the meanest things they can think of about her. Then there’s her G-rated gig cheerily co-hosting the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. At one point, Deborah’s history of insensitive humor resurfaces. While she initially vows never to apologize for any joke, Ava urges her to at least hear out a generation that wasn’t even alive when she made many of them, in what is perhaps the least hysterical “” plot TV has produced.

For all its timely self-awareness about the industry it represents, Hacks is, in many ways, a traditional sitcom. It’s a professional will-they-or-won’t-they centered on a classic odd-couple duo: two women of vastly divergent ages, politics, and bank balances, one just starting her career and the other a battle-scarred veteran. Season 3 smartly ups the show’s focus on another well-mismatched pair, Deborah and Ava’s dangerously decent agent, Jimmy (Downs), and his flighty assistant, Kayla (the wonderful Megan Stalter, now more than just wacky comic relief), who have left the agency her dad runs and struck out on their own. (The season’s one notable flaw is the dearth of substantive storylines for two chronically under-developed characters, DJ and Deborah’s repressed deputy Marcus, played by Carl Clemons-Hopkins.)

The writers make inspired use of sitcom standbys, from the character who absolutely needs to be in two places at once to the bottle episode; Deborah and Ava are forced to spend hours alone together, as Deborah finally confesses her mixed emotions about getting everything she’s always wanted so late in life. “You know,” she tells Ava, “your whole life you say, ‘One day I’ll do this, one day I’ll accomplish that.’ And the magic of ‘one day’ is that it’s all ahead of you. But for me, ‘one day’ is now. Anything I want to do, I have to do now, or else I’ll never do it. That’s the worst part of being old.” The speech resonates whether you’re Deborah’s age or Ava’s, made all the more poignant by Smart’s gradual shift in mood, from tough to vulnerable. In this scene and others, the tumultuous love between her character and Einbinder’s has a familial authenticity.

Like its best forerunners, from to 30 Rock, Hacks is hitting its stride a few seasons into its run because it takes that long for a cast and a writing staff to learn how to make each other as brilliant as they can possibly all be. Early on in the series, there was a bit of a disconnect between Einbinder’s affable performance and some of Ava’s nastier moments. Now, the character seamlessly coheres. Deborah has always been the role of a lifetime for Smart, and in the new episodes, the creators reward her virtuosity by giving her more fodder for introspection and growth than ever before. In the heyday of broadcast comedy, a sitcom that had achieved such ideal synergy could retain its audience—and the support of its network—for upwards of a decade. It’s fitting, when you consider that one of its heroines is the ultimate Hollywood survivor, that Hacks has become the rare streaming show with the potential to have the same longevity.