‘Hacks’ Season 3 Review: Jean Smart Is Better Than Ever in Max Comedy’s Anticipated Comeback

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but when it comes to the return of the Max Original comedy “Hacks,” that platitude is not the only reason why its third season is the best so far. (But for a little context as to the length of that absence, Season 2 was released two years ago — when its streaming platform was still known as “HBO Max.”) When Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky’s series about the world of comedy makes its triumphant return Thursday, it does so with an even more confident sense of self than ever before. It’s a confidence that stems from the foundation set from the two seasons before, making the latest episodes a triumphant showcase for all creatives involved.

Picking up a year after the events of the second season, “Hacks” Season 3 begins with a new normal in which Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) finds herself in a professional renaissance, and Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) seems to finally have her act together when it comes to both the personal and professional. It’s perhaps preaching to the choir to praise Jean Smart’s performance — and she remains tremendous in this role — but Hannah Einbinder also shines this season as a more together Ava who actually has absorbed and applied what Deborah has been teaching her.

This isn’t just Einbinder’s best season, it’s arguably her funniest.

Deborah (Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder) in Hacks Season 3 (Photo Credit: Max)

As promised at the end of the season, both women are climbing their own mountains separately, but as one expects from “Hacks,” it’s not long before they find themselves back together, dragged back into the swing of their toxic and codependent, yet symbiotic and brutally honest relationship.

The stakes are higher this season, with Deborah on top of the world and always seemingly a second away from being knocked right back down due to her past and present Deborah Vance-ness. Where the first season featured the (at the time, new) Deborah/Ava relationship at its most combative and closed off, and the second grappled with just how close the two could be with Deborah remaining just out of arm’s length (and also suing Ava in the process), the third season goes all in as soon as it can with just how much Deborah and Ava need each other. Deborah still takes time to make her little cracks and barbs at Ava (when she’s not openly ignoring her overly-conscious Gen Z speak, an aspect of Ava’s character that has only gotten funnier over the seasons) — and Jean Smart remains crackling with every insult she delivers, truly capturing a character who just can’t turn it off — but the walls between the two are as low as they have ever been. However, just because there’s more openness between the characters doesn’t mean the show’s edges have been sanded off completely. “Hacks” began as a funny-yet-caustic series, and while that caustic nature has decreased with each passing season — both for the show and its characters, especially Ava — there’s still an edge to the series that just hits. In some ways, “Hacks’” entertainment industry-related jokes fill the void left by the end of Max’s “The Other Two,” as the humor is even sharper than ever.

In Season 1, Deborah and Ava were both on the backfoot in their careers. Deborah was still “Deborah Vance,” but she was also a punchline to anyone who wasn’t in the demographic of her fandom. She was seemingly content doing the same routine over and over again, in both her stand-up and other professional enterprises. She was forced to contend with the fact that she was considered a dinosaur (and a hack) in an industry that valued a youth she no longer had. This season provides a few nice contrasts showing how she has changed, especially as she interacts with a few of her contemporaries. It’s not a drastic growth, but it’s there. The same goes for Ava, as her problem was never her talent but instead the way she treated people in part because of it. And her aforementioned overly-conscious Gen Z speak, even when she was technically right, always came with a side of myopicness and self-centeredness that didn’t do her any favors. That part of her personality is still present at this point, but played even more for laughs.

Jean Smart and Mark Indelicato in “Hacks.” (Max)

But what’s most impressive about this season is its return to form without being a complete rehash, as it balances having the backdrop of both Las Vegas and Los Angeles, like the first season did. Because for as good as the second season was, much like “Girls5Eva’s” third season over on Netflix, “Hacks’” season-long on-the-road, touring narrative widened the scope of the series in a way that somewhat took away what singular focus the series had held previously. That focus returns this season, even though Deborah and company still find themselves on the private jet — with plenty of non-LA/Vegas detours — when need be. And instead of just focusing on the stand-up aspect of it all, the season takes the increased notoriety of Deborah Vance to explore spaces like the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, late-night talk shows, improv comedy and comedy roasts. The Deborah Vance experience has never just been one thing, but this season, it’s even more.

As for “and company,” Deborah’s new, elevated status also means that the whole team is working even harder to maintain that success and keep the momentum going. And with Jimmy (Paul W. Downs) having left his management company at the end of Season 2 and Kayla (Megan Stalter) joining him in solidarity, Deborah is now his most important client — meaning he (and Kayla) is now very hands-on and even more a part of the team than before. The two of them make quite the dynamic duo, despite Kayla’s regular deficiencies as an assistant and Jimmy’s frustrations with said deficiencies. With both Downs and Stalter promoted to series regulars this season, “Hacks” capitalizes on the new status quo by them no longer primarily being in office scenes, far away from any of the actual action. So there’s now more cohesion among the ensemble, with everyone on the same page when it comes to the Deborah Vance brand.

Megan Stalter, Carl Clemon-Hopkins, Mark Indelicato and Paul W. Downs in “Hacks.” (Max)

Unfortunately, the way everything shakes out this season means that there is even less of Deborah’s blackjack dealer Kiki (Poppy Liu) than ever. Fortunately, Deborah’s assistant Damien (Mark Indelicato) is a comedic standout this season, somewhat filling that Kiki-sized hole. The season also attempts to fill any other perceived holes with major guest stars (and cameos), ranging from Tony Goldwyn to Helen Hunt to Christina Hendricks to Christopher Lloyd to J. Smith Cameron (who plays the recast Kathy Vance, Deborah’s estranged sister). That star-studded lineup could come across as a troubling sign for the season, but none of these guest spots overstay their welcome or distract from the world of the show. Instead, they help build the world out, which felt a bit insular in the first season and was almost too vast in scope in the second (while still overall being quite successful seasons of “Hacks”).

Absence really does make the heart grow fonder, but so does quality; and “Hacks” Season 3 has that from start to finish.

“Hacks” returns for Season 3 Thursday, May 2, on Max.

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