'Hacks' Season 3 review: Compelling storylines and character growth take time Ava (Hannah Einbinder) and Deborah (Jean Smart) have both grown a lot since we first met them in Season 1. It's a reminder that shows need breathing room to achieve satisfying development.


'Hacks' Season 3 is proof that compelling storylines and character growth take time

Ava (Hannah Einbinder), left, and Deborah (Jean Smart) have both grown a lot since we first met them in Season 1 of Hacks on Max. Max hide caption

toggle caption

Ava (Hannah Einbinder), left, and Deborah (Jean Smart) have both grown a lot since we first met them in Season 1 of Hacks on Max.


It's pretty sad to find yourself referring to a third season of an Emmy-winning show as an example of streamers letting something run for a decent length of time. And, while many of us have a sense that "everything gets canceled so fast!" there's some nuance about how true that really is. Some of that depends on how you handle the knotty question of the "limited series."

But boy, it sometimes seems like everything gets canceled awfully fast. And in that environment, seeing Hacks return for a third season that's perhaps its strongest yet is a reminder that, given the chance, good shows often pay off over time in ways that can't be realized in their first, hottest, premise-establishing, character-establishing runs.

We first got to know Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a young comedy writer who thought she was very cool and very progressive, when she reluctantly went to work as a writer for Deborah Vance (Jean Smart). Deborah was slowly ossifying at her long-running casino gig, and she felt like she needed something fresh — not that she was really willing to listen to Ava all that much. The two women have been through a lot since then, including an estrangement or two (Ava wrote a horrible note about Deborah to people who wanted to destroy her; Deborah slapped Ava in the face for calling her a hack; nobody's perfect). At the end of the second season, the two parted ways after Deborah had some newfound success and realized Ava needed to go work on her own career.

So naturally, at the beginning of the third season, we find Deborah enjoying a new kind of success as a more interesting performer, but also a ... perhaps we can say "cooler" one. (She just did a Super Bowl commercial!) Ava, meanwhile, is a writer on a good comedy show. Will their fates lead them back together? Of course, yes. We know this. But what makes Hacks interesting at this stage is that Ava and Deborah remain themselves, but they've been affected by the things we've seen happen to them since their relationship started. The Ava we know now would never approach Deborah with the arrogance and dismissiveness that she did in the first season, and the Deborah we know now would never treat Ava as insensitively as she often did then.

They've evolved professionally, too. There's a good scene early on in the new season in which Deborah realizes that popular success has made it extremely easy to get laughs without trying very hard. She doesn't actually have to be good – just like she didn't in Vegas, when her audience snoozily accepted her material. But now, having done all the work she's done, she has more of an interest in being good; it unsettles her to get the kind of adulation she once believed she wanted. Being a hack, this scene suggests, is less about being bad than it is about not caring whether you're good.

And Ava is less grasping now, less on the outs with the comedy world. The gag of her having been "canceled" over a tweet is pretty much over, which is good, since there is not another drop to be wrung out of that idea.

This kind of thing, characters growing and changing, is far from revolutionary. It's the very reason for serialized storytelling to exist in the realm of character-based comedies as opposed to pure joke factories. But you usually cannot accomplish this kind of change with a single season, or even with two six- or eight-episode runs. What you're now seeing with Hacks is the upside of even a little bit of patience, of affording the time for a pair of characters to spend time together and apart and be affected by each other.

Jimmy (Paul W. Downs) and Kayla (Megan Stalter) Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Max hide caption

toggle caption
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Max

It also allows for things that might be a little bit out of balance in the beginning to change. When Hacks started, my biggest hesitation was that I could not stand Ava. It's not that she wasn't likable (Deborah wasn't either, really). But Ava was so obnoxious and so arrogant that it crossed over into a place where ... I didn't care. I wanted her to get fired and go away forever. It didn't help that she rarely seemed funny enough to be a good comedy writer. Whether it's me learning to understand her better, or the show and Einbinder presenting her a little differently, Ava is now more like Deborah, to me: flawed and messy and consumed by ego at times, but plausibly talented and basically decent.

I also have really grown to appreciate the dynamic between Deborah and Ava's agent, Jimmy (Paul W. Downs, who co-created Hacks with Jen Statsky and Lucia Aniello) and his assistant, Kayla (Megan Stalter). At first, despite Stalter offering a dynamite performance, Kayla came off a bit pitiful, begging for Jimmy's attention with a kind of vulgarity that he answered with exasperated disgust. But particularly since Jimmy left his agency and he and Kayla struck out on their own, they've become a truly cooperative pair, and while they are both still a lot, Jimmy gets the fact that his assistant has talents and abilities beyond just her devotion to him.

I have my small complaints about the third season, most of which have "but" statements attached: I could certainly have done with a little more from Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), but what the show gives us works very well. I'm not sure they needed a "college students and cancellation" story later in the season, but they do a solid job with it once they're there. And there is a creative decision made toward the end of the season that I know I will be arguing about with people who love this show, but I am intrigued by how it does or does not fit into the season.

Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) Eddy Chen/Max hide caption

toggle caption
Eddy Chen/Max

This is all good, though. It's chewy and complicated, and that comes from a kind of breathing room that giving a show eight half-hour episodes just isn't going to give you. The result is that a show that's always been funny and prickly and full of wonderful performances is also, in this season, a more compelling story about people.

This piece also appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.

Listen to Pop Culture Happy Hour on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.