Jean Smart, always a great actress as her role as Kate Winslet’s mother on “Mare of Easttown” recently displayed, is having a moment, meaning the world is taking notice. Last year, Smart won an Emmy for playing standup comic Deborah Vance on “Hacks.” She’s even better—funnier, fiercer, deeper— on the second season, now coming on like gangbusters on HBO Max.
So bring on another Emmy. But awards don’t define Smart, her talent does. At 70, she’s riding a career high. Her blend of acid-tongued insults and unexpected glimmers of feeling, suggests Joan Rivers, but Smart makes it her own in a fabulous, fasten-your-seatbelts tour de force.
Deborah is, first and last, a handful. When we last saw the diva, she was leaving Las Vegas—where she once reigned as queen—and heading out on tour. Her strained relationship with Ava Daniels (a dynamite Hannah Einbinder), the Gen Z writer hired to make Deborah’s act more topical and brutally honest, puts Ava in the firing line of Deborah’s narcissism.
In a brief bout of tenderness, Deborah had traveled to Boston for the funeral of Ava’s father, a tough scene to shoot since Smart had only recently lost her husband Richard Gilliland, the actor she met when they both costarred in “Designing Woman” in the late 1980s.
As Season 2 begins, Deborah and Ava are bristling with animosity, mostly stemming from Ava’s tendency when drunk to publicly blab about her boss’s imperfections and Deborah’s insidious plot to exact revenge while indulging her habit for X-treme shopping.
And yet here they are stuck together in close quarters on a nationwide road tour in a jumbo RV, captained by a terrific, take-charge Laurie Metcalf as a tour director named Weed. It’s symbolic that Deborah gets the lavish bedroom while Ava is crammed into a bunk.
Still, Ava’s effect on Deborah is indisputable as the pair works to turn the darkest corners of Deborah’s life—her husband leaving her for Deborah’s own sister—into edgy, explosive fun. The pain that lies simmering under a laugh has rarely been as powerfully conveyed.
Season 2 also grows in intimacy by covering new ground and encountering fresh faces. Deborah has a one-night stand with a younger man who—cardinal sin—doesn’t know who she is. And Ava gets to let fly with own fluid sexuality. The episode set on a lesbian cruise where Deborah must connect to an audience she usually mocks sends out every joke with a sting in its tail.
Kudos to showrunners Lucia Aniello, Jen Statsky and Paul W. Downs, who also shines as Jimmy, the exasperated agent for both women. There is less to do for the supporting cast, including Meg Stalter as Kayla, the assistant who sexually harassed Jimmy, and Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Marcus, the sidelined manager still reeling from breaking up with his boyfriend.
Smart and Einbinder spin comic gold, as they lace caring into the competition between Deborah and Ava that makes “Hacks” the comedy rocket of 2022’s Emmy season (sorry, “Ted Lasso”).
Sappy isn’t served in this generational battle between two women testing their limits in life and art, just a bonbon of mirth and malice no other sitcom can match.