There are no comfort zones in the second season of “Hacks,” and that’s by design. When the two female comedians at the heart of the HBO Max dramedy first met, their divergent geographical affinities played an outsize role in their mutual distrust. Las Vegas was where Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) — a stand-up pioneer modeled on Joan Rivers — reigned, and where it was okay if her material got a little musty, since she could always rely on her QVC endorsements to make up for falling ticket sales. In Los Angeles, 20-something Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) was just another joke writer trying to get staffed on a TV show, but her minor achievements were enough to instill a smug sense of cultural centrality, if not feed the delusion that she was at the forefront of the comedy world. That is, until she tweeted something tasteless, made herself an industry pariah and was forced to take a job punching up Deborah’s jokes.
Season 1 took place on Deborah’s home turf — largely in her gaudy mansion, in fact, which Ava snidely compared to the Cheesecake Factory. But after her hireling turned protege persuaded Deborah to revamp her act by making it more personal and intimate, the comedy veteran decided she needed to take her new show on the road. It wasn’t just that she had to workshop her new material with audiences beyond her fan base. For the first time in a long time, Deborah wanted to be uncomfortable. She craved it.
The Emmy-winning Smart carried the show’s first season with her slippery charisma, coiled-and-ready-to-strike pain and delightfully unpredictable line readings. It’s a joy to see the rest of the series catch up with her munificent excellence in its sophomore year. The writing is funnier and more poignant, the ensemble has gelled and the tonal jaggedness that plagued the previous season has been smoothed out. With Smart never better, the first six episodes (of eight total) find the show firing on all cylinders. It’s exactly what you’d hope from any sophomore season.
Its success is in no small part due to the road-trip setup, which puts Deborah and Ava in ever-new situations and forces them to reveal hidden facets of themselves — at rest stops, yard sales and punishingly beige psychic offices. If the first season over-enunciated the contrasts between the characters — Deborah a boomer with tastes that run toward the basic, Ava a Gen Z hipster who can’t stop scolding about social issues — the upcoming episodes finally allow them to fully blossom as characters. An exceptional episode set on a lesbian cruise is all the more powerful when it explores Deborah’s desire for reinvention and self-discovery, as well as her knee-jerk resistance toward confronting her internalized misogyny after decades working in a male-dominated field like comedy. Having charmed men — gay and straight — all her life, she’s never given much thought to women indifferent to male approval. The following episode, in which Deborah runs into a former friend (a marvelous Harriet Sansom Harris) she may have driven toward quitting stand-up, is just as remarkable for its rich character history and gutting reversals of fortune.
At the end of Season 1, a vindictive Ava had sent an email enumerating Deborah’s faults to a pair of TV writers shopping around a series about a monstrous woman prime minister in the hopes that the details would inspire them, maybe even find their way onto the show. Ava’s guilt, combined with grief over her father’s recent death, also leave her ready for change. But it’s the fact that her observations get to be sharper and her smarts in service of more than admiring her newfound mentor that makes her more than Deborah’s foil, as she mostly was in Season 1. Smart and Einbinder lean into the softer aspects of their characters’ bond, especially during late nights on the road, but the series never lets itself go fully sweet. It relishes in the bite.
Despite nearly half a century onstage, Deborah struggles to make her new confessional style click with audiences; she even loses the interest of a longtime stalker, who apologetically describes her new material as “a bummer.” Her failures feel true to life; there was a reason she played it safe for so long. The buttoned-up CEO of her enterprise, Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), spirals even harder when Deborah abandons the path they’d paved together for their joint benefit. There’s a gratification in seeing the reverberations of the comic’s attempts to evolve play out among her staff, since she worked so hard to ensure that Deborah Vance wasn’t just a legend, but a corporation.
We take the reinvention of celebrities for granted; it’s what they’ve always done, and what they’ll always have to do, for us to stay curious. Ava had encouraged Deborah to dig deep within to find herself anew, but of course comedy isn’t just spilling secrets and suffering onstage. When the pair finally figure out how to make Deborah more than a #MeToo precursor or an accumulation of sob stories, the crucial component, it turns out, was in the comic all along. Like the new season, Deborah is a master at finding what works — and pitilessly jettisoning everything that doesn’t.
That ruthless self-refinement is sorely missing in the follow-up season of another series about older women mounting a showbiz comeback. The first year of “Girls5eva,” creator Meredith Scardino and executive producer Tina Fey’s Peacock sitcom about the members of a long forgotten one-hit-wonder girl group getting back together in their 40s, coasted by on its fresh conceit and tremendous charms: its tart satire of “TRL”-era sexism in pop music, its heartwarming premise of finding a third act long past youth and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s breakout performance as Girls5eva’s most talented and least grounded diva, Wickie. (Who else would court the paparazzi by donning a chartreuse velvet coat with fuzzy lavender trim from “The Nicole Kidman ‘Undoing’ Collection”?)
It’s not unfair to expect a show to work out its kinks by the second season after a bumpy debut. Unfortunately, “Girls5eva” still functions primarily like a joke machine, leaving too many individual episodes, especially at the season’s start, baggy and overlong. But stick with it, and it turns out the plot arcs and emotional beats guiding the eight new episodes are rather solid, with Wickie, the group’s normie songwriter Dawn (Sara Bareilles), perpetually open-mouthed Christian eye candy Summer (Busy Philipps) and seemingly sensible mother hen Gloria (Paula Pell) trying to strike a balance between “album mode,” in which they have to deliver a bundle of bops to their record label in a ludicrously short period of time, with “human mode.” Later, the label asks for a love song that feels “raw and achingly true that can one day be in a Super Bowl ad where a lady likes a travel website.”
But getting in the way are a host of middle-aged woes: maternal duties, marital difficulties, failing knees, a socially debilitating obsession with true-crime podcasts and, in a smart development for Season 2, reconsiderations of times when the singers weren’t just victims of Britney Spears-style treatment by early-2000s media, but complicit in less-than-humane treatment toward others.
The songs aren’t quite as catchy or funny this time around; none reach the observational precision of “New York Lonely Boy” or the bittersweet triumph of “4 Stars.” But the deeply satisfying character development of each Girls5eva member — and the greater poignancy of their sisterhood in their later years, as the concept matures from Spice Girls-esque marketing hook to genuine affection and respect for one another — eventually makes up for the uneven pacing and lack of bangers. They’re no longer the hot new thing, but they’re no flash in the pan, either.
Hacks returns Thursday with Episodes 1 and 2 on HBO Max. Two episodes will be released weekly.
Season 2 of Girls5eva (30 minutes) streams Thursdays on Peacock.