‘Hacks’ Season 3 Focus on Deborah’s Mortality Was ‘Art Imitating Life’ for Jean Smart

Between the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes and an industry still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, this past year has been tough on television. But few shows were hit as hard as Max’s “Hacks,” which dropped a new critically-acclaimed season in May after nearly two years away.

Production for Season 3 of the Emmy-winning comedy about the complicated relationship between aging comedy icon Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and her Gen Z joke writer Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) started in November 2022 before pausing in February 2023 so Smart could undergo a heart procedure. Shooting resumed in mid-March, only to shut down again for the WGA strike.

Being on the other side of this touch-and-go production process has been a “big relief,” Smart told TheWrap. “It was hanging over our heads for so long. We didn’t know for sure that the network would even have us finish the season. Everything was in such turmoil.”

She clarified that Max has supported the show “a great deal,” but said she worried about a climate in which networks make big financial decisions regularly (such as Warner Bros. Discovery shelving “Coyote vs. Acme”). “You never really know,” Smart said. “You’re not privy to what their concerns are. But we were glad to get back to work. It felt really, really good.”

“Hacks,” which first premiered in 2021, has been praised for its realistic and scathing portrayal of both Hollywood and the comedy industry. The show has won five Emmys, including two lead actress trophies for Smart’s portrayal of Deborah. In the new season, Deborah grapples with her mortality, which, given the star’s real-life health scare, Smart described as “art imitating life or vice versa.”

After learning that her longtime dream of hosting a late-night show could become a reality, Deborah drops everything to sit in the coveted chair. But the more Deborah and her team scheme and schmooze, the more the series takes a hard
look at the comic’s age and health.

In her luxurious Las Vegas home, Deborah may be able to cry ageism and say she’s just as capable as she was in her 30s, but an ill-conceived hiking trip in the fifth episode, “One Day,” proves this isn’t the case when Deborah injures her ankle. As she and Ava stumble further into the woods, the seemingly infallible Deborah admits she’s so desperate to get the late-night job because she knows it’s her last chance. The admission leads to a complex conversation about aging, the privilege of youth and what is owed to future generations.

Deborah (Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder) in “Hacks” (Photo Credit: Max)

Smart said that she didn’t explicitly think of her surgery when filming these scenes but that the event might have had an impact on her performance.

“Certainly, what Deborah says is very true,” Smart said. “When you’re [Ava’s] age,
‘someday’ is way in a distant, hazy future. When you get to be my age, you suddenly realize, wow, it’s not distant at all. The clock is ticking. I feel guilty now when I feel like I’ve wasted a day.”

Einbinder appreciated how “beautifully poetic” Episode 5 is. “Deborah’s facing how her life is precious, and [there’s] also the commentary on life on Earth and how precious that is.”

It’s fitting that one of “Hacks’” deepest moments would occur between Deborah and Ava, because the series hinges on their relationship. “We have always wanted to make this show be a love letter to comedy, the art of making comedy and the intimate relationship that occurs when you create with someone,” co-creator Jen Statsky said. “It’s what keeps them pulled towards each other. There is a love and a connection there that they don’t find in anyone else, even in romantic relationships.”

As lovely as this sentiment may seem, it has a dark side that’s explored in Season 3. Ava repeatedly tries to establish boundaries with her boss, but her dedication to Deborah costs her more than ever before, including a loving girlfriend and her dream job as head writer on a TV show. Ava’s moral backbone is pushed to its breaking point, which leads to a season-ending confrontation that the creators had always envisioned.

“[Ava] has totally dumped her whole life,” Einbinder said. “Obviously, as we come to find out, it’s a bit of a fool’s errand to try to chase Deborah Vance, expecting something that’s going to be equal all of the time. That’s not to undermine the validity of their connection. But Deborah gonna look out for Deborah.”

A version of this story first ran in the Comedy Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Larry David photographed by Mary Ellen Matthews
Larry David photographed by Mary Ellen Matthews

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