How ‘Hacks’ Keeps Ava and Deborah (and the Audience) on Their Toes in Season 3

“A hack is someone who does the same thing over and over. Deborah is the opposite.”

That’s a line from Episode 8 of the third season of “Hacks,” but it’s also very much the ethos that co-creators Jen Statsky, Paul W. Downs, and Lucia Aniello have brought to each season of the Max comedy; the show always leaves Vegas comedy legend Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and her writer, the millennial trashfire Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder), in a more interesting place than it found them. Equally, “Hacks” has evolved in its look and its scope.

More from IndieWire

The show became more visually ambitious in Season 3, with everything from massive drone shots to college rager montages; it also hones in on a level of detail that wordlessly intensifies the emotion of a given scene. Maintaining the tone and rhythm of the series while expanding what’s visually possible is the fun challenge for the show’s team of directors, including Aniello, Downs, Jessica Brunetto, and Jeff Rosenberg. But, as with Deborah and Ava’s relationship onscreen, a lot of the decisions Aniello, Downs, and Statsky make for the show are down to wanting to make each other laugh.

While directing Episode 6 of Season 3, for instance, where Ava and Deborah network with network execs at a golf tournament, Downs thought it would be funny to reveal Ava’s caddy outfit using the rise of a hill. “Paul’s really good at this as a director. He really preps and does all of that stuff, but he’s really open, on the day, to, ‘What is this? What is this right here?'” Aniello said on an episode of the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast.

“We didn’t have time [for the hill shot]. We had negative time [but] he powered through another scene and then sent one of our operators with a little boom to start rehearsing that move with other people. We shot it two or three times. Then we used some b-roll that we shot for other parts of the episode and he and he and [editor] Jon Philpot built this amazing sequence that’s now in the trailer,” Aniello said.

There’s an artful balancing of forethought and openness throughout the season — especially in the final turn of the screw in Episode 9 when the two protagonists have to navigate what their relationship is going to be in Deborah’s late night era. Aniello went into directing the final scene of the episode knowing she wanted to make sure that, for the first time, Smart and Einbinder each felt like they were at the head of the proverbial table. Accordingly, Aniello frames the scene with a big conference table putting a painful amount of space between them right at the moment Deborah most wants to cut her counterpart back down to size.

Hannah Einbinder in 'Hacks'
‘Hacks’ Jake Giles Netter/Max

In the pair’s confrontation earlier in the episode, though, it’s a collection of cinematic choices that build up the emotional ramp for Einbinder and Smart to rocket off of. A subtle combination of a small camera push-ins on Ava, a quick swell of Carlos Rafael Rivera’s score, and a wild thunk of her Doc Martens hitting the floor all sweep us into the stress and anger Ava’s feeling in that moment.

“We don’t even know where that sound came from, but it was in production, and we kept it,” Aniello said. “We just wanted [Ava’s] entrance into that scene, even though there’s no door to slam, to feel like a punctuation and really bring that violence into the room.”

As “Hacks” continues to find ways to support the show’s performers and changing character dynamics, it continues to expand its visual vocabulary. But that expansion is very much built on what’s come before. Statsky, Aniello, and Downs made deliberate references to prior seasons but have taken an un-hack-like approach to them.

Hannah Einbinder and Paul W. Downs in 'Hacks' stare out at the skyline of Los Angeles, their backs to the camera.
‘Hacks’Jake Giles Netter/Max

Aniello talked about how it was important, whether with the opening shot of the season that references the oner at the start of Season 1 or Deborah’s fixation with her antique salt shakers, to be very deliberate about those moments and add very deliberate visual twists on them. There is salt shaker chaos instead of salt shaker order; the tracking shot in Season 3 isn’t of Deborah at all. That visual variety keeps the audience poised between enjoying a familiar dynamic and being delighted by a new surprise.

“Something we want to make sure we do is to not just be repeating,” Aniello said. “We try to blow up the show a little bit at the end of every season in a way that can reset it in some way — not just to get the audience excited to watch the next season but to make us excited to be like, ‘What else can we do that we haven’t done that’s still fun?’ And at this point, it feels like we’ve earned a very different dynamic.”

Hacks” is available to stream on Max.

Best of IndieWire

Sign up for Indiewire's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.