What Hacks Understands About the Myth of Self-Betterment

The HBO Max show’s second season is refreshingly free of easy epiphanies and life lessons.

Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder in "Hacks"

Deborah Vance, the caustic stand-up played by Jean Smart in HBO Max’s Hacks, likes to live large. Take her new ride, for instance: It’s a gussied-up tour bus with her initials emblazoned in hot pink on the side, and it’s equipped with a soda machine and a regenerative light-therapy bed. It also has a “much better master bedroom than the last time I was on one of these things,” Deborah coos as she ambles inside. It’s a vehicle fit for a celebrity of her stature.

The bus is also, figuratively speaking, the story engine for the Emmy-winning comedy’s second season. The new episodes follow Deborah and Ava (played by Hannah Einbinder), the Millennial she hired as her writer, on a trek across America to perform shows and sharpen the confessional material in Deborah’s set. Road-trip comedies have been effective since Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert met-cute on a Greyhound in It Happened One Night. Lucy and Desi piled into The Long, Long Trailer for their first film together. Robin Williams drove an RV to the top of the box office. Buses and customized vans make for excellent pressure cookers, and barreling through towns of varying sizes can lead to colorful encounters, unexpected detours, and maybe even profound observations. Mayhem and enlightenment, in road-trip comedies, go hand in hand.

Season 2 of Hacks boasts its fair share of travel-related hijinks, whether Deborah’s making a pit stop to purchase antiques or Ava’s holding up the schedule because she needs to buy a bigger water bottle. Still, the series, which streams new episodes every Thursday, uses the road not only to create dramatic tension but also to reveal how performers think. There’s little contrast between the Deborah of Las Vegas and the Deborah on the road—and making her take her act across the country only emphasizes how her home has always been the stage, no matter where that stage happens to be.

Deborah, unlike other travelers, isn’t on a journey toward self-reflection. Her Las Vegas residency ended with her bombing at her final show, so she’s seeking different opportunities to perform for people who can tell her what they think of her and, more important, what they want from her now. These gigs are challenging, even for the comic who’s considered the funniest woman in the business, and as the season progresses, Deborah becomes chameleonic. On a lesbian cruise, she does what she thinks the crowd will like, dancing—or, as Ava puts it, “doing Ellen”—and switching up her jokes. Upstaged at a state fair by the birth of twin calves in one of this week’s episodes, Deborah tries to make cow-related jokes, but loses her composure. This isn’t a road trip about understanding oneself; Deborah has always known who she is. What she doesn’t know is whether she still has an audience. She's not eating, praying, and loving. She's taking notes, calculating moves, and working until her set is complete.

And that work, Hacks makes clear, is her pleasure. An odyssey of this type might provide escape for most people, but not for Deborah. Instead, it underlines how no real boundary exists between her personal and professional spheres, because her art relies on sharing opinions and stories from her own life. Even for those who don’t make money by riffing on their own relationships before the public, Deborah’s attitude may resonate, especially given how popular “workcations” have become. She can never fully turn off the part of her that cares about her career, so much so that she’ll commit to making a stop at a farm in the sweltering heat, to tape a segment for her home-shopping show. Afterward, the camera follows Deborah as she walks away, looking at ease, while in the background her personal assistant struggles to break down the set. Deborah sees her utter devotion to her job as normal, not strange.

Ava, meanwhile, is on a self-reflective journey, but her story line captures how being on the road doesn’t always lead to self-betterment; for her, that idea is nothing more than a myth. After confessing to Deborah about the nasty email she wrote while drunk and high—an account of how horrible Deborah is to work for, sent to the writers of a new TV show about a bitchy prime minister called Bitch PM in the first-season finale—Ava feels so guilty, she decides to correct her worst habits. She declares she’s no longer drinking, and that she’ll get herself a flip phone to prevent further digital mishaps.

Neither attempt manages to turn Ava into a flawless person, of course: Aboard the lesbian cruise, she’s easily swayed into grabbing a cocktail, and her decision not to use a smartphone results in her nearly losing her dad’s ashes. Besides, even if Ava thinks she’s being a more well-rounded person, her efforts go unrewarded. Deborah remains her overbearing boss, and she’s even suing Ava for breaking her NDA with the email. The two of them might as well be back in Deborah’s mansion for all the headway Ava has made in gaining Deborah’s trust.

Yet the lack of epiphanies, life lessons, and intergenerational bonding is what makes the second season work so well. The show isn’t following the trajectory of other comedies that have forced their characters to hit the road. Hacks takes full advantage of getting to provide a new playground for its ensemble, but the structure allows, more than anything, the show to highlight the ways in which performers like Deborah and Ava don’t ever get to clock out. They grow closer only when they’re writing jokes together—and even then, that closeness is by necessity, built in service of Deborah’s new routine, which both of them need to succeed. Every stop offers just another spotlight, every detour more material to turn into a bit. Perhaps that’s a bleak conclusion for a comedy. But then again, neither woman would have it any other way.