‘Hacks’ Season 3 Gets Even Better With a Cocktail of Piercing Comedy 

Relationships with mentors can be complicated as the years go by. Even if it works out, there can still be a relationship mixing tension with endearment. Max’s “Hacks” stays fresh into its third season by staying true to that reality. At the same time, it relentlessly jabs at entertainment talking points about ageism and gender. To teach someone else how to master your craft can also mean realizing your day in the sun is fading. There have been few recent pairings in streaming to top Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder. Smart has already won an Emmy for her work in “Hacks,” and rightfully so. Combined with the sharp writing, the pair is never less than absorbing to watch.

The storytelling approach is elegant by not feeling like a “third season.” We’re simply catching up with the lives of veteran stand-up comic Deborah Vance (Smart) and younger writer Ava (Einbinder). Last season ended with their link being broken when Deborah found her needed career revival via Netflix. She basically dumped the younger protégé when her services didn’t seem needed any longer. Now, Ava is working at a comedy/news program while dating an actress, Ruby (Lorenza Izzo). Yet, neither woman feels absolutely fulfilled. A window opens where Deborah might be able to compete for an opening to host a big late night show. Her best chance at landing the gig might depend on whether she can get Ava back on her team.

The first season of “Hacks” was a great, cackling lesson in the rigors of truly learning comedy. Showrunners Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky have wisely allowed the characters to actually grow. Ava has learned much, but still has many miles to go. Deborah feels back on top, but is conscious she’s also battling against time. At an industry party, her managers boast to a younger comic that they can make his career happen, since they’ve already boosted someone “who is 70ish.” Ava can’t seem to get out of Deborah’s shadow. They meet again at the same party, where Ava steels herself for Deborah’s critique of her wardrobe (to be fair, it is pretty drab for the occasion). In her own private life, Ava is also falling into the typical pothole of assuming her relationship with Ruby is more serious than the latter has admitted. A later moment of comedy involving a misunderstanding with a ring is pure cringe heartbreak.

What bonds Ava and Deborah is that the veteran comic is keenly aware only Ava truly gets her voice. No one writes for her in the same way. Of course they get back together, despite Ruby trying to stir doubts by telling Ava she’s always going to be working for the older comic. Their big goal this season also touches on the important, surprising reality that no woman has ever successfully hosted a late night program. Their taking on network heads while writing material has a great, behind the scenes energy. As with the last two seasons, the supporting cast are colorful delights. Deborah’s managers, Jimmy (Downs) and Kayla (Meg Stalter), are cheerful pokes at the stereotypical L.A. operators, dressing trendy and keeping track of buzzwords. Poppy Liu, who has been such a standout in this show, unfortunately gets less screen time. 

More effective are moments where side characters are given moments of truly piercing drama. Deborah’s business manager, Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), becomes his client’s conscience when it comes to her need to acknowledge her gay fan base. The most moving side story belongs to Deborah’s daughter, DJ (Kaitlin Olson), who, like so many showbiz kids, was left to their own devices. She agrees to participate in a TV “roast” of her mom and stuns everyone with a smart, biting set of jokes. She mixes a three-line mantra, “what a cunt,” with a mixture of affectionate observations showing that beneath the dysfunction, there’s still love. Deborah may have not been the greatest mother, but DJ still carries her comedic gene. It is a scene worth emphasizing because it demonstrates why “Hacks” is so good.

At its core, the series remains one of the best about the grind of learning an art form. Ava instantly reconnects with Deborah because she knows deep down there will never be a better teacher. The seasoned comic’s talent and experience are better than any official school. Peppered along the way are jabs at Hollywood recognizable to any struggling writer, from Ava juggling work with love to pondering whether she should seek work on a procedural hilariously named, “Operation.” Like the best shows of its kind, “Hacks” feels written by people who know what they are talking about. They capture the trenches well because it’s a battleground they have no doubt traversed, learning along the way from people like Deborah.

Hacks” season three begins streaming May 2 with new episodes premiering Thursdays on Max.