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‘Hacks’ review: Jean Smart’s Deborah Vance sets her sights on a late-night TV gig in Season 3

Nina Metz – Chicago Tribune (TNS)

There’s real tenderness in a show like “Hacks.” Real cruelty, too, and that’s separate from its insult comedy sensibility. Back for its third and strongest season on Max, the Joan Rivers-esque showbiz veteran Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and her semi-obnoxious Gen Z writer Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) have a new goal: To land Deborah the job hosting a late-night talk show.

It’s the same quasi-“Tonight Show” gig show that she lost earlier in her career — a crushing letdown that left her bitter and shellshocked for decades — so this feels personal: “I have been waiting over 40 years for a second chance. This is it. I want that chair.” Does the premise feel somewhat behind the times considering late-night TV has lost much of its cache in recent years? Yes! Don’t tell “Hacks” that, but maybe it doesn’t even matter. As a framing device, it gives the season a much-needed shape and a compelling narrative destination.

The pair have been estranged for months, with Deborah busy (if bored) doing a victory lap after the massive success of her comedy special. Ava is on the upswing as well, writing for a show that’s a riff on John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight.” Technically, they don’t need each other anymore. But clearly, in some metaphysical sense, they do. This is the cycle they’re trapped in and the show’s guiding principle: A gradual, somewhat grudging bond is formed between two prickly personalities, lulling you into the belief that their friendship has progressed beyond its transactional, sharp-elbowed origins and then — zing — betrayal. It’s a true Hollywood story.

Ava remains the kind of annoying person who rear-ends a city bus and apologizes profusely as the passengers disembark — “I want to commend you for using mass transit!” — before she unironically hightails it back to her car.

Old habits die hard for Deborah, as well. She still relies on her accumulation of stuff to compensate for her disappointments and insecurities. Her secondary closet isn’t just located somewhere in her mansion, it’s an entire warehouse at a separate location. None of this can fix whatever is gnawing at her soul, but it’s such an insightful detail.

Rooting from the sidelines are the various members of her team, including her agent (a terrifically beleaguered Paul W. Downs, who is also one of the show’s co-creators along with Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky) and his overeager, can’t-read-a-room-to-save-her-life assistant (Megan Stalter, who gets more nuance this season, making her less of a one-joke construct).

The quips are funnier this time out, too. You know nothing about fashion, Deborah informs Ava: “You look like you’re dressed to have lunch on a steel girder.” Another line is such an obvious but funny joke, I can’t believe we haven’t heard it sooner: “I can’t be woke, I’m exhausted!” Schmoozing and schilling are second nature to Deborah because she’s a warhorse in this business and willing to play the game if the price is right. Ava brings more awkward vulnerability and skepticism to the mix. Sexism and ageism remain the show’s core themes. But also the neediness of people who are drawn to fame and talk-show stardom, and the way failure and neuroses can infect everyone around them. Roger Ebert clocked this in his review of the 2011 documentary “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop,” noting that after he lost “The Tonight Show,” everyone around him paid a price: “He relentlessly nibbles away at his support system, picks on his personal assistant, needles his sidekick Andy Richter and dominates his writers.” There’s a lot of Deborah and Ava in that description.

It’s a real relationship, twisted and sad, but also weirdly supportive and meaningful — and far more intimate than any bond with their immediate family members. Despite the 40-year age gap, this is probably the most important connection either has ever had.

“Hacks” is more or less doing variations on the same story each season, but it’s doing it in interesting ways, and the brass ring of a late-night talk-show gig is a juicy arc onto which this toxic pattern can play out once again. Nobody self-sabotages their way to success like these two. Wariness gives way to trust. And then inevitably the entire floor gives way, every time.

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‘HACKS’ SEASON 3

3.5 stars (out of 4)

Rating: TV-MA

How to watch: Max

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©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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