USA TODAY International Edition

‘ Hacks’ reminds us why we need to fail

- Kelly Lawler

“Hacks” Season 2 bombs – but in a good way.

The show itself doesn’t crash and burn, but lets its characters repeatedly fail in new and surprising ways: Veteran comic Deborah Vance ( Jean Smart) flops in comedy clubs while she tries to remake her act; her erstwhile protégé Ava ( Hannah Einbender) fails to remake her life; Deb’s CEO Marcus ( Carl Clemons- Hopkins) fails to recover from a relationsh­ip; and Deb’s manager Jimmy ( co- creator Paul W. Downs) fails to keep her happy.

HBO Max’s acerbic, bold series is one of many cynical comedies that don’t shy away from mixing darkness with humor. And that tension between what makes us laugh and what makes us cry is part of what made the first season brilliant – and the winner of three Emmy Awards for Smart’s performanc­e, writing and directing.

“Hacks” returns for Season 2 ( streaming Thursdays, ★★★☆) as a more self- assured show, even if its characters have never been less sure of themselves. The darkness is deeper and sometimes more despairing this season, but the jokes are just as frequent, and maybe even a bit more cathartic. Deborah spends most of the new 10- episode season trying to revitalize her career with new material, but “Hacks” pulls off a strong sophomore year by thoughtful­ly doing more of the same.

The comedy picks up immediatel­y where we left off last season, with Deborah and Ava together as a writing team once again and ready to take the new act on tour after Ava’s ultimate betrayal of her boss: She had emailed a list of terrible stories about Deborah to the writers of a TV show.

Weighed down by her guilt and desperatel­y trying to fix her massive error of judgment, Ava is no longer the snarky foil to Deborah’s self- centered brashness. She’s humbled and harried, putting on a show of penance even as she sometimes refuses to learn. Deborah, meanwhile, struggles with her self- confidence as her new material – confession­al, emotional stuff – doesn’t connect with audiences at comedy clubs and state fairs. Neither actress misses a beat as their characters change; they’re both comfortabl­e with every line of dialogue and heightened emotion.

Deborah and Ava’s story is on the road, but back in Las Vegas, Marcus embarks on a path of self- destructio­n after he and Wilson ( Johnny Sibilly) broke up. His life devolves into a haze of partying that disrupts his work and leaves him lower, not healed. Clemons- Hopkins, who received an Emmy nomination last year, goes to heartbreak­ing and raw places as Marcus loses his way. His Season 1 work was excellent, but in the new episodes, he is the clear standout. Also still popping up in the background are Jimmy and his wild and willful assistant Kayla ( Megan Stalter), as their absurdist power struggle reaches new heights.

“Hacks” remains a show that appeals to multiple generation­s, not just because of the age range of its cast but because it intimately understand­s what it’s like both to be an aging woman not ready to retire and a young woman just starting out. Both involve a lot of trying and a lot of failing.

Sometimes it feels good to bomb. It feels even better if later, you kill.

 ?? PROVIDED BY HBO MAX ?? Jean Smart and Hannah Einbender in “Hacks.”
PROVIDED BY HBO MAX Jean Smart and Hannah Einbender in “Hacks.”

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