TV: Hacks (Season 3)

When Hacks finished its second season, I was so pleased with how perfectly it had landed, I was sure it had been planned as an end to the show. Little did I know a third season was in the cards—and that it still had plenty of tricks up its sleeve. The result is easily the series’ best season so far.

Hacks chronicles the fraught working relationship of sardonic young comedy writer Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) and the stand-up legend whose career she revitalizes, Deborah Vance (Jean Smart). Initially thrown together in desperation by their mutual agent Jimmy (Paul W. Downs), the reluctant partners initially butt heads but eventually develop a magical rapport—one that enables Deborah to reinvent herself, even as it brings out Ava’s best work and catapults her career to a new level. At the end of season two, just as she’s reaching a new peak of popularity, Deborah takes a surprising step: cutting Ava loose. This betrayal sets the stage for season three, with our two heroes in separate places: Ava having moved on to a new girlfriend (Lorenza Issa) and staff-writer job, Deborah as the toast of the national comedy scene. Deborah’s ghosting of Ava after firing her has caused bad blood between them, but circumstances conspire to bring them back together, ultimately driven by Deborah’s single-mined quest to secure the late-night TV hosting gig that scandal and bad luck stole from her, decades earlier.

Season three obviously needed to get Ava and Deborah back together, a potentially awkward structural hurdle, but one that is effortlessly vaulted. Thanks to superb writing and performances, the professional reunion feels both natural and convincing, and leads to a near-perfect season, each episode paced with precision and loaded with the conflicts, laughs, and thematic richness that make Hacks tick. Much has been made of Smart’s excellence in this role, and she inhabits it brilliantly yet again, but Einbinder is even better this year, delivering a versatile performance as funny as it is emotionally raw. Another highlight this year is dynamic between Jimmy and his erratic assistant Kayla (Megan Stalter), a slightly overdone supporting bit in season two that the writers level-set perfectly here, giving Downs and Stalter—their chemistry honed to precision—a consistently superb B-story spotlight. Lost in the shuffle is Deborah’s stalwart business manager Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), but even his sidelining seems intentional to the show’s extended examination of the jagged intersection of personal and professional relationships, not to mention Deborah’s abusive ambition. The TV production landscape is still settling into a new normal in the wake of the streaming wars’ financial flameout, but it’s great to see one the gems that era spawned still going strong, delivering its best showing to date.

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