'Hacks' Is Back and Better Than Ever in the Stellar Showbiz Comedy's Sharply Funny Third Season

With Deborah Vance chasing a hosting gig on late-night television, this award-winning HBO series has ambitious new terrain to traverse.
Sarah Ward
Published on May 03, 2024

Sometimes you need to wait for the things you love. In Hacks, that's true off- and on-screen. It's been two years since the HBO comedy last dropped new episodes, after its first season was one of the best new shows of 2021 and its second one of the best returning series of 2022 — a delay first sparked by star Jean Smart (Babylon) requiring heart surgery, and then by 2023's Hollywood strikes. But this Emmy- and Golden Globe-winner returns better than ever in season three as it charts Smart's Deborah Vance finally getting a shot at a job that she's been waiting her entire career for. After scoring a huge hit with her recent comedy special, which was a product of hiring twentysomething writer Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder, Julia), the Las Vegas mainstay has a new chance at nabbing a late-night hosting gig.

Fictional takes on after-dark talk shows are having a moment, thanks to Late Night with the Devil and now Hacks' third season. At times, some in Deborah's orbit might be tempted to borrow the Australian horror movie's title to describe to assisting her pitch for a post-primetime chair. That'd be a harsh comment, but savage humour has always been part of this showbiz comedy about people who tell jokes for a living, which returns via Stan in Australia and TVNZ+ in Aotearoa from Friday, May 3. While Deborah gets roasted in this season, spikiness is Hacks' long-established baseline — and also the armour with which its behind-the-mic lead protects herself from life's and the industry's pain, disappointments and unfairness.

Barbs can also be Deborah's love language, as seen in her banter with Ava. When season two ended, their tumultuous professional relationship had come to an end again via Deborah, who let her writer go to find bigger opportunities. A year has now passed when season three kicks off. Ava is a staff writer on a Last Week Tonight with John Oliver-type series in Los Angeles and thriving, but she's also not over being fired. Deborah still sees it as a necessary move, and a push for her protégée to chase her own dreams. Ava feels scorned and betrayed, particularly since she was the catalyst for her mentor ditching the act that she'd been performing at a casino residency for decades, then getting raw and real by sharing stories about being a woman in comedy over that period, reinventing her image in the process.

Back in Vanceland (our term, not the show's; Deborah's mansion is sprawling enough to warrant such a name), everything is gleaming without Ava — but Deborah isn't prepared for being a phenomenon. She wants it. She's worked for years for it. It's taken until her 70s to get it. But her presence alone being cause for frenzy, rather than the scrapping she's done to stay in the spotlight, isn't an easy adjustment. She's hardly fond of her new writers (Dream Scenario's Dylan Gelula and Orphan Black: Echoes' Jordan Gavaris), and crowds feeding off her merely standing onstage means that none of her material actually matters. Deborah's life is now unfettered praise and no challenges; as her Estate Manager Josefina (Rose Abdoo, Leo) remarks to her Chief Operating Officer Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins, The Beanie Bubble), the comedian staying up all night rearranging her salt-and-pepper shakers isn't a great sign.

Hacks creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W Downs and Jen Statsky — all Broad City alumni, all co-writers, with Aniello also directing and Downs co-starring — were never going to keep Deborah and Ava apart in season three. The reunifying developments: first crossing paths at Just for Laughs in Montreal, then tucking into Tom Cruise's famous coconut cake, then attempting to win Deborah a hosting job that she once almost had and hasn't recovered from losing. With Ava's show on hiatus for three months over summer, she agrees to head back to Vegas to help do whatever it takes. If it sounds like a reversal of season two's finale, that's because it is — instead of Ava being free to pursue her own passions, she's parking them for Deborah's — but codependency has also long been at the heart of this always-astute gem.

Although Deborah can't stomach being seen to rely upon someone, Ava has changed her. As for the latter, she can't divorce her own career from the comedy legend. But time away, and also the success of the special that neither could've made without the other, puts them on more-even footing when they reteam. Hacks season three again also explores the other pairings in Deborah's life, including her daughter DJ's (Kaitlin Olson, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) festering hurt over her mother's absence in her childhood, and Marcus feeling undervalued and stagnant while running her business empire. Now out on their own, Deborah and Ava's manager Jimmy (Downs, How It Ends) and his assistant Kayla (Megan Stalter, Please Don't Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain) have their own codependency to grapple with, especially as they work their way through the industry (which is where guest stars such as Blindspotting's Helen Hunt and Knuckles' Christopher Lloyd come in) on Deborah's behalf.

Hacks' third season has a comedy roast, where DJ revels in the catharsis of slinging mean words at her mum; a dress from Deborah's treasure trove that Ava describes as "giving Big Bird"; and Mad Men great Christina Hendricks as fellow big-name guest. Its main duo get lost on a hike, navigate a golf trip and weather a chaotic Christmas party. Deborah also admits to feeling the passage of time, as well as the urgency to achieve everything that she's ever wanted ASAP that snowballs with it. The season surveys humour today from high-profile ridicule sessions to cancel culture. It's unsparing about the glass ceiling in late-night TV, as it should be.

Along the way, Aniello, Downs and Statsky keep improving their series — and keep proving some of the smartest and funniest writers in the business. Crucially, the pursuit of Deborah's all-time coveted gig takes Hacks into new terrain, ambitiously for the show and the character alike. A sitcom built around an odd couple, the show could've coasted by on its mismatched intergenerational lead twosome. It could've remained a must-see thanks to the excellent performances that the never-better Smart and equally engaging Einbinder bring to their parts, because they're both that magnificent. But while Deborah might've clung to a routine for much of her life, the series hasn't, and it's all the greater for it. If longevity is about taking risks, Hacks makes its latest confident and hilarious claim for a long-haul run.

Check out the trailer for Hacks season three below:

Hacks season three streams via Stan in Australia and TVNZ+ in New Zealand from Friday, May 3. Read our reviews of season one and season two.

Published on May 03, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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