But Seriously, Folks: Inside ‘Hacks’ Season 2

It seems fitting that a series conceived during a road trip—as Hacks was when its Emmy-winning creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky drove from Boston to Maine in 2015—would send its antagonistic protagonists on a similar excursion for its sophomore outing. “We always wanted to make their fish-out-of-water story even more heightened,” Downs says about putting prickly comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and her smart-ass millennial joke writer Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) on a no-frills comedy tour to workshop new, more personal material after Deborah loses her cushy Las Vegas residency.

What follows is a rocky outing—often in Deborah’s tricked-out tour bus, where the boss has her own bedroom, and her sidekick is consigned to a tiny bunk above an LED light-therapy bed. Along with a lawsuit for violating an NDA, that’s punishment for the tell-all email Ava sent to TV producers, airing Deborah’s dirty laundry, and labeling her a bully.

Aniello and Downs, who are married, and Statsky recently spoke to V.F. over Zoom about the scrappy twosome’s cross-country trip, their ultimate reconciliation, and what Deborah’s triumphant return to the top after financing her own TV special means for their future.

Deborah’s antipathy toward Ava begins to wane after they dumpster-dive (along with Deborah’s unflappable assistant, Damien, played by Mark Indelicato) to retrieve Ava’s dead father’s ashes—which were unwittingly tossed by their type A tour manager “Weed” (Laurie Metcalf). The subsequent scene at the Grand Canyon, where Deborah accompanies Ava to spread some of the ashes, was one of the few for which the production actually traveled outside of L.A.

“Jean had never been there before,” says Downs of the actor, who won a 2021 Emmy for playing the acerbic comic. Smart brought along her son Forrest for what Aniello, who also won a Emmy for directing the series, says was a challenging and freezing sundown shoot. “I always say that it is so hard to be funny in the cold—and I’m somebody who’s always cold. So I was really feeling for Jean and Hannah in that moment,” she says, when a seemingly sympathetic Deborah tells Ava that it’s probably good her father didn’t live to see her be taken for everything she’s worth.

Several states and uneven performances later, Deborah tells her protégé that she’s had an epiphany: “I am a bully who has been thinking of myself as a victim. I need to take myself down too, in a real way.” Where Deborah once “made fun of herself in a way that was leaning into this caricature that she played onstage, now she’s actually holding herself responsible for her true living history,” Downs explains.

Not that a little self-awareness lessens her volatility. While in L.A. to sell a network on a TV special—which doesn’t work, in part because Deborah wants her longtime colleague Elaine Carter (Susie Essman) to direct it—Deborah chainsaws a neighbor’s treehouse that’s obstructing her mansion’s views. Later, she hides shrimp in the dressing room of the Vegas magician who replaced her. “People in our world grow, but they never fundamentally change,” Downs says. “So Deborah is always going to be Deborah. And she’s always going to put shrimp underneath the pillow, if you’ve wronged her.”

By Karen Ballard/HBO Max.

Meanwhile, Ava’s redemption tour has seen her swear off alcohol and drugs, and trade her smart phone for a flip model after Deborah tells her that Ava is “as selfish and as cruel as I am.” By the season finale, she’s practically humble: passing on taking a writing credit for Deborah’s show, and leaving her L.A. punch-up gig early to support Deborah as she tapes her self-financed special. “She start[s] to have a true admiration for Deborah, and the hard work that comes with being an artist with an intense work ethic,” Statsky says. “She also begins to be other-minded…think[ing] less about herself and more about other people.” Both of those choices reflect Ava becoming “a bit more selfless.”

“We want to always show characters that are taking one step forward and two steps back, and are living a very grounded real human experience,” says Downs, who does double duty on Hacks; he also plays the codependent duo’s beleaguered agent, Jimmy LuSaque. That might explain Jimmy’s bawdy assistant, Kayla (Meg Stalter), who continues to terrorize her boss—and others—with zero consequences. “What in the name of the devil’s uncut dick are you doing here?” she asks Jimmy’s client-poaching nemesis, Janet Stone (Ming-Na Wen), backstage before Deborah’s show.