HBO Max’s ‘Hacks’ Hits the Road for a Second Season of Winning Comedy

You don’t really get to know someone until you’ve traveled with them. The second season of HBO Max’s “Hacks” explores how this is quite true when it comes to mentors. While the crackling chemistry between leads Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder has grabbed much deserved acclaim, this is a comedy that offers insights into how the creative process, and creative relationships, really works. If last season was about a veteran comic having to get used to the presence of a younger star whose style challenges her sensibilities, this new round takes on an even more personal note. “This whole season is about road tripping, Americana, bars, honky tonks and friendship all swirling together,” is how Poppy Liu, one of the show’s most endearing supporting cast, puts it to Entertainment Voice.

The season begins with acidic laughs and plenty of tension. Veteran comic Deborah Vance (Smart) has bombed during her final Las Vegas show and is now primed to hit the road and test new material. Tagging along is Ava (Einbinder), the younger, raunchier comic who was tagged with shaping Deborah’s new style after getting canceled. Ava is carrying her father’s ashes in a tennis ball can and a guilty conscience. Last season ended with her angry and drunk, firing off a text to a TV show exposing all of Deborah’s unsavory details and quirks. The pair kick off the tour with personal assistant Damian (Mark Indelicato) also onboard. Supervising the tour is Weed (Laurie Metcalf), who likes to share tales of many close calls on the road. Desperate to prevent any fallout, Ava warns Deborah’s L.A. agent, Jimmy (Paul W. Downs), about her big slip. But when Deborah finds out she decides she’ll still keep Ava on as her writer, while getting revenge in a particular, sassy way.

Putting Deborah and Ava on the road keeps “Hacks” fresh and versatile. “This is a bigger, better version of what we tried to do with season one,” Downs, who is also a co-creator, tells Entertainment Voice. “Sometimes you take a leap, which is even more true when writing a stand-up comedian. Thank god Jean Smart is so naturally funny. The punch lines just come naturally to her.” Instead of a clash of comedic generations, these episodes focus on the two artists truly growing closer, sometimes clumsily. Their standoffs are paired with some hilarious antics, such as when Weed accidentally throws out the tennis ball can with dad’s ashes. A desperate Ava, helped by Deborah, starts digging through dumpsters in search of the can. In the fourth episode the two unknowingly get on a lesbian cruise ship which unnerves Deborah but offers Ava, who is bisexual, several potential hookups. “I’ll just stay here and take one of those depression naps you’re always raving about,” Deborah tells Ava while sitting bored in her cabin. Deborah’s tough exterior hides real fears about how much longer her career can last. Ava will also try and push Deborah to explore how she may not realize just how diverse her sexuality can be. Despite the little adventures, Deborah and Ava still do the hard work of sitting down and writing new material, analyzing every joke for what it can say.

Jean Smart easily dominates every scene, although Einbinder, who made her debut with the first season of “Hacks,” remains a perfect partner in crime. Yet the show retains lots of charm by also giving more space to supporting roles this season. Poppy Liu brings mischievous joy to every scene she appears in as freelance black jack dealer Kiki. Kaitlin Olson is a combo of scrappiness and sweetness as DJ, Deborah’s daughter, whose partner is a UFC fighter Deborah nearly dismisses. There’s a great scene in the season opener where they attend one of his fighters and Deborah is compelled to cheer him on, suddenly relating to the spirit of trying to beat the odds. Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Marcus, who manages Deborah’s interests in Vegas, gets his own entertaining side storylines involving the stress of being in charge, and having a nagging mom (Angela Elayne Gibbs) pop in at home. Friends at the gay club he frequents can only advise he take it easy and maybe do a little coke. “The sets are to die for and the writing just crackles this season,” says Clemons-Hopkins, “What’s so important is how it does capture all the highs and lows of show business. It’s pretty revelatory and spot-on on the creative process. I love how it doesn’t shy away from dealing with that. Plus, you’ll see me on a particular theme park ride this season too.”

“This season captures so well the feeling of being on tour,” says Rose Abdoo, who plays Josefina, Deborah’s housekeeper. “I once toured with an ensemble and toured 33 states. You really get to know each other and sometimes want to throttle someone. By the end you know who likes V8 juice with salted peanuts (laughs). And with Jean it’s just fun to make everyone laugh. She’s the warmest, sweetest person. It was also more fun this season because we didn’t have to wear masks all the time.” If the show ever changed leads it would be done for. What carries it more than anything are Smart and Einbinder, who bring out that great sense of camaraderie that can form between artists stuck on the same boat. There’s a rather grand moment in the cruise ship episode where Deborah croons Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and works up the crowd into full adoration. It’s a wonderful scene that shows how Deborah became a legend in her career. Little pit stops at malls and restaurants add to the journeying fun (in the Midwest Deborah scours shops for cheap good clothing, because “in this part of the country they don’t know about fashion”), and there are also cameos by comedians like Margaret Cho, who briefly appear to throw in a good punch line or two before disappearing. Painful secrets are shared while good jokes are found in fears about the future. At its best, “Hacks” is about how we can make it through life by learning and laughing.

Hacks” season two begins streaming May 12 with new episodes premiering Thursdays on HBO Max.