We Can’t Stress Enough That ‘Hacks’ Season 3 Is So, So Good

In bad relationships, coffee shops that turn into wine bars after a certain hour, and television productions, there is one core rule to abide by: You’ve got to know when to get out.

Too many TV shows that would be perfect as one-season wonders or two-season talents continue airing well past their primes. Business execs and producers are milking the teet of Big Streaming so dry that the nipple is about to fall off your Roku TV remote. A third season of Big Little Lies is currently in the mix, despite Season 2 being irrefutable proof that a limited series almost never needs an extension. And then there’s Nine Perfect Strangers, which was so indescribably insipid that I can’t think of another reason to bring it back for its upcoming second season besides some kind of nefarious blackmail behind the scenes. (Why Nicole Kidman always seems to be at the scene of the television obsolescence crime when she could just stay making the best movies you’ve ever seen is a mystery to me.)

We’ve been so inundated with this more-more-more phenomenon (another season of Beef will be served hot soon enough) that, when a show can buck the trend of a feeble comeback, it’s a damn-near revelation. Such is the case for Hacks Season 3, which extends Max’s brilliant comedy past its second season’s clear-cut ending for a third installment that not only proves its worth, but runs laps around the show’s last batch of episodes—which themselves were already formidable examples of modern comedy writing.

Hacks’ third season, which drops its first two episodes on Max May 2, is punchy and lithe, bringing beloved comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and her socially conscious co-writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) back for a season that tightens the show’s focus, but keeps its ambitions broad. It’s a major triumph in an increasingly dreary streaming landscape.

Hacks seems aware that some viewers may be suspicious of whether it can keep up its quality going into Season 3. Last season’s finale, which concluded with Deborah and Ava coming to terms with their toxic working relationship and Deborah dropping her symbolic lawsuit against Ava, could have been a perfect ending to the show’s story. To cast away those doubts, Season 3 opens with a clever trick. The premiere serves up some paint-by-numbers character exposition to catch us up to speed, the way any other show might after a two-year hiatus following an excellent ending. At first, it looks like Hacks is going the route of telling separate Ava and Deborah storylines this season, until their individual arcs intertwine halfway through the episode. This fakeout opener suggests that, if Hacks were your average show, another season would be devoid of the series’ signature scrappy charms, trying too hard to do something new.

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / Max

Deborah is, after all, out promoting her incredibly successful, self-funded special, which has revitalized her career and gained her a new generation of fans. Ava is doing just as well for herself, co-producing a weekly comedy-news show. But watching them move apart from one another is far less interesting than watching them work concurrently, and when the two women find their way back to each other, it’s heavenly—and hilarious—enough to quell any remaining misgivings.

This show has always been smarter than its generational head-butting premise would suggest. No laugh is too high to reach for, and no punchline is too minute or esoteric. Watching Ava and Deborah spar never gets old because the show’s writers understand that a good bit will always be funny as long as there’s bravery and intelligence behind it. It’s just as much fun to watch these two people fight as it is to see them lean into their mother-daughter and mentor-mentee dynamics. But because Deborah and Ava are so close (even if they won’t admit it) that makes their working relationship all the more precarious. Recycling this tension for a third season could easily make viewers feel like Hacks is circling the drain. But by the end of its two-episode premiere, the show is back in its groove with a storyline about an exciting new opportunity that could take its seasoned comedian to an entirely new echelon of fame.

The success of Deborah’s special—it sold over four million DVDs on QVC alone and put her on the Time 100 list—has put her back in the spotlight in a major way. Before now, Deborah Vance was a legacy act, the kind of person whose nightly show you could stumble into after a few too many drinks on the Vegas strip. Now, sold out venues on a comedy tour have made her a hotter commodity than she’s been in decades. But all of those victories have made her job harder to do. Audiences are laughing at her jokes well before the punchlines arrive, assuming that every word out of her mouth is part of the slice-of-life formula Deborah employed in her special. She needs something new and fresh, and when the possibility of achieving a lifelong dream falls into her lap, Deborah knows that she’d be a fool not to jump at it.

A photo including Jean Smart, Mark Indelicato in the series Hacks on Max

Jean Smart, Mark Indelicato

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / Max

There’s a late-night talk show spot about to open up, and given that Deborah’s controversial career was forged from the flames of her first talk show’s flop pilot decades earlier, Deborah’s recent launch into the A-List stratosphere is the ideal opportunity to patch up an old wound. But talk shows need talented writers (if only someone would tell that to Jimmy Fallon), and the most talented joke writer that Deborah knows is off working on a Daily Show knockoff. But a chance meeting at a Canadian penthouse, a Tom Cruise coconut cake, and some unwanted fashion advice bring Deborah and Ava back together, and neither of them can deny that, despite their contentious past, their energy is just as alluring as it’s ever been. Season 3 will have the Dava—or perhaps, Avorah?—fanfiction writers working overtime.

Season 3’s second episode is a highlight. Deborah and Ava jump into action when Deborah gets the chance to fill in to host the talk show she’ll be gunning to take over for the rest of the season. The resulting episode of late-night TV, an episode within an episode of Hacks, is a total riot, attaching viewers to the prospect of Deborah scoring a spot among the Kimmels and Colberts of the world.

Later, Episode 5 is a welcome comedown and a tender series highlight, in which Ava and Deborah get stranded on a hike and have to rely on each other to make it out of the woods alive. Both of these episodes tighten the bond between the two women in different ways, elucidating how these richly written characters have grown. Even better: these small moments of growth pay dividends as the season continues, reminding us that our personalities and beliefs are always reflective of the people we keep in our orbit, even if we don’t realize it until much later.

As for Deborah’s orbit, things have stayed the same. Recurring characters like Deborah’s agent Jimmy (Paul Downs), Jimmy’s assistant-turned-business partner Kayla (Meg Stalter), Deborah’s daughter DJ (Kaitlin Olson), and her business manager Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) all return, among others. But Hacks wisely retreats from earlier attempts in past seasons at giving everyone a storyline or love interest. Season 3 stays firmly focused on Deborah and Ava, and lets everyone else join in for the fun. There are, however, some killer guest stars. Christina Hendricks and Christopher Lloyd couldn’t be more polar opposites in their roles—which I’ll refrain from spoiling, because they’re that unexpectedly batty—but they fit perfectly into Hacks’ ultra-silly universe.

Season 3 indicates that this universe has the potential for endless expansion. Hacks defies the skepticism that was generated by too many TV series that ran too long. It returns with creative justification that goes beyond lining the pockets of Warner Bros. executives. This season has as much heart and vivacity as both seasons before it, but sees Deborah and Ava finally working together as equals. They have found ways to trust each other, and it has made their work—and Hacks—as great as ever.

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