The ‘Hacks’ Ensemble Is No Joke

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Photo Source: Karen Ballard/HBO Max

As we prepare for the 29th Screen Actors Guild Awards, Backstage is breaking down this year’s film and television ensemble nominees for your consideration.

Main Cast: Rose Abdoo, Jane Adams, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Paul W. Downs, Hannah Einbinder, Mark Indelicato, Poppy Liu, Christopher McDonald, Laurie Metcalf, Kaitlin Olson, Jean Smart, Megan Stalter 
Casting by: Nicole Abellera and Jeanne McCarthy 
Created by: Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky 
Distributed by: HBO Max

Nobody can hurt you like the ones you love, and “Hacks” spends its second season proving that point in the most hilarious ways possible.

Veteran standup comedian Deborah Vance (SAG and Emmy winner Jean Smart) is still reeling from having bombed for the first time in years. Meanwhile, her newly re-hired comedy writer Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) nervously waits for Deborah to find out that she made all of her boss’s narcissistic, toxic behavior public. When the ax finally falls, both women are left feeling wounded and betrayed. As we watch Smart and Einbinder roll over this new bump in Deborah and Ava’s already rocky relationship, we witness a professional partnership growing and deepening—for the actors and their characters alike.

This evolution is why we still find ourselves rooting for the duo; no one gets them the way they get each other. “You are me,” Deborah snaps at Ava during a fight, and though she means it to hurt, the younger woman also takes it as a compliment. They’re both in on the joke that outsize ambition has played on them, and they can’t truly connect with outsiders who will never understand their shared plight. 

The season paints this truth most vividly in the guilt-ridden one-liners traded between Deborah and her daughter, DJ (Kaitlin Olson), as well as the fraught but funny reunion between Ava and her mother (Jane Adams). The latter brings a manic, fluttery energy to Nina that Ava deflates with pointed questions about the pyramid scheme her mom has gotten wrapped up in. The season’s most revealing moments come when Deborah and Ava stop digging for the joke and pause to examine why they’re capable of inflicting so much pain on others. 

Meanwhile, the players hovering around the central pair go on their own inner journeys without sacrificing any of the show’s humor. That includes new additions Laurie Metcalf as a prickly tour manager; Devon Sawa as America’s new favorite one-night stand; and Harriet Sansom Harris as Deborah’s former professional rival, who reveals cracks in her old frenemy’s armor simply by living her life. 

The second season also digs into the struggles of Deborah’s business manager, Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins). His habitual deadpan begins to erode thanks to his new drug-fueled clubbing lifestyle—one that ends in a truly “Hacks”-esque blend of cringe comedy and heartache. Mark Indelicato provides a dry counterpoint to the others’ emotional crises as Deborah’s personal assistant, Damien; and Poppy Liu makes a welcome return as Deborah’s (and the audience’s) beloved blackjack dealer, Kiki. 

HacksCredit: Karen Ballard/HBO Max

“Hacks” is a brilliant examination of the comedy world and the weirdos who are drawn to it. The misfits Deborah surrounds herself with are written to perfection by creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky; but it’s the actors bringing them to life that make this oddball chosen family (of people on salary, as Ava points out) feel funny but grounded. Even Megan Stalter’s scenery-chewing turn as office assistant Kayla reads as authentic because she’s so well-balanced by Downs as put-upon manager Jimmy LuSaque. This pairing is the show’s biggest swing, and their Season 2 arc proves surprisingly satisfying.

The performers and characters have lost none of their zest even after the show—and awards voters—have granted them the success they’ve been fighting for. The “Hacks” ensemble members are at their funniest when they’re raging against things that are out of their control. But they’re just as sharp and clear-eyed when they overcome those challenges—and once all outstanding lawsuits are withdrawn.

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