"Hacks" returns with its funny ladies on the mountaintop, but questions the cost of the climb

Returning as 61-year-old Vanessa Williams drops a club track, the show reaffirms it still has legs, and miles to go

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 2, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Christopher McDonald in "Hacks"  (Max)
Christopher McDonald in "Hacks" (Max)

On April 26, Vanessa Williams pulled a Beyoncé – or is it a Cher? – by dropping her first new single in 15 years without much fanfare, relying on its catchiness and her followers, online and IRL, to share the links and spread the word. 

“Legs (Keep Dancing)” isn’t just Williams’ first new single in 15 years, it’s a dancefloor paean to aging fiercely that spins around its catchy refrain of, “They say the legs are the last to go/ I’ma keep dancing." 

Her explanation of the single’s message on Tuesday’s “Today” sounds straight out of Deborah Vance’s playbook on “Hacks.” “It's like, I'm still here. I'm still relevant. I still got stuff to say and do and act,” she said.

Her moves in her video back up those words. Williams, at 61, hits choreography marks that would hang up dancers many years younger, either keeping up or outpacing most of her backup dancers. It’s too early to predict whether the single will be the hit of the summer, but if people of a certain age needed a banger Williams has served.

Besides, as alluded to by Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager, if she didn’t do it, who would? She’s “not waiting for people to get stuff done for me,” she says, producing and directing her own work. She’s betting on herself.

That attitude has served “Hacks” and its brusque diva Deborah well, not to mention giving Jean Smart the best role of her career. So far. 

“Hacks” could have ended for good on a high note at the end of its second season, which resolved Deborah’s plummet from the Las Vegas firmament with a comeback engineered by her writing partner Ava (Hannah Einbinder) pushing her to do more confessional, self-skewering comedy. Smart’s comedian is modeled in part on Joan Rivers, but the critical knives she turned on herself were cruel. Deborah, in contrast, opts to wield blistering honesty concerning her faults and sins in her self-produced special. She kills.

Even so, every network passed on it. But Deborah isn't deterred. She took the video directly to her QVC faithful, proving her marketability with blockbuster sales numbers. Suddenly she’s hot again. 

“Hacks” consistently preaches that “aging gracefully” business is at least partially a load of bull while qualifying that aspirational truth by showing that it’s a constant fight, and women are obligated to swing hardest and never stop swinging. Men, meanwhile, can come and go from comedy’s mainstages as they please.

Following delays imposed by last year’s dual actors and writers strikes and Smart’s recovery from heart surgery, “Hacks” returns on a new creative high, one that positions itself to keep going as long as its pins can support it. As the star comedian’s cosmetic surgery and skincare regimen does, so goes this series – both are constantly “refreshing."

Some of that means playing with commonly accepted notions concerning aging and one’s marketplace viability. But the more crucial cuts take a scalpel to its core duo’s addictively poisonous dynamic.

One year after Deborah’s return to the mountaintop, she’s on such a hot streak that simply appearing in a room gets her applause, which is a great way for a comedian to lose their edge. Not even the stylist teams at her beck and call have the guts to be brutally honest about her choices. Only Ava was ever that brave.

But Deborah lovingly shooed away the writer so she could tend to her own career, which, thanks to her mentor’s reflected heat, scored her one of TV’s most sought-after staff gigs as a co-producer of this show’s version of “Last Week Tonight.” Ava doesn’t need Deborah anymore. 

HacksHannah Einbinder and Aristotle Athari in "Hacks" (Max)No superstar lights up the sky by themselves. Williams’ crew of producers, for example, include veteran R&B artist Kipper Jones, who worked on her earlier albums, and Chantry Johnson, who has also produced Lana Del Rey. 

If her track wins over Gen Z, some credit for that win is due to songwriter Kjersti Long's contribution to the track; the teenage pop singer has a co-writer credit along with Johnson and Jones. 

Staying relevant takes the foresight and humility to respect youthful skills and perspectives. Thus, when Deborah gets a rare second chance to finally realize her lifelong dream, she understands that only Ava can help her clinch it.

This kicks off one of the better third-season reversals in recent memory, one that pulls in an impressive roster of guest stars, including but not limited to Helen Hunt. "Hacks" creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky gamely position Einbinder to be closer to the level of Smart’s glamorous showbiz raptor — all claws and plumage dazzling enough to hide all the arrow wounds.

Einbinder sustains the awkward insecurity that keeps the character lovable despite her tendency to cling to career-imperiling decisions and egotistical outbursts which, in these new episodes, are fewer. Ava has her problems to process, having evolved from a thankless comedy brat to being too grateful and respectful of the woman who both nurtures her and at times has threatened to reduce her life to ashes.  

Still, she’s confident enough to pass on flimsy projects her and Deborah’s manager Jimmy (Downs) suggests, including a revival of “Gumby” that makes the character bisexual. “He bends both ways!” chirps Jimmy’s barnacle of a partner Kayla (Meg Stalter).

Every time this crew reaches a good place, it can never stay that way.  If you recall, one of the first lessons Deborah teaches to Ava is that good is the minimum, the baseline. “You have to be so much more than good," she says.

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Season 3 sifts through what that really means — to Deborah, and Ava, and to Deborah and Ava. The writers spend two full seasons immaculately closing the sale on why these two women remain loyal to one no matter the mutual damage they inflict. They are vindictive, self-serving, and bruise easily – not the types of people we’d want in our lives.

Together they’re rocket fuel, pure wizardry, partners who push each other to want more for themselves. You’d think that Deborah, the seasoned comedian who has weathered the severest industry toxicity imaginable, would appreciate that about Ava. Not always. 

In one of the new season’s most riveting screaming matches, she tears into her writer for pushing her out of her Las Vegas comedian comfort zone after she realizes the younger woman is in her head. She finds it annoying.

But if Ava and Deborah had never teamed up, the veteran may never have taken another shot at a coveted legacy late-night chair that unexpectedly opens. 

As is the case in our reality, no broadcast network has ever hired a woman to host an 11:30 variety talk show, let alone one as old as Deborah – her words, not mine. (She also throws in being blonde as another barrier to shatter.) Common sense and history tell her that campaigning for the position would be a waste of time. 

HacksJean Smart, Megan Stalter and Paul W. Downs in "Hacks" (Max)On the other hand, rejecting the notion that ambition has limits is Deborah’s defining maxim. Allegedly. For all her success, Deborah is haunted by having lost out on her chance to host late-night in the same sweep of terrible fate that led to her envious husband leaving her for her sister. Everyone around her pays for that disappointment, including her prickly daughter DJ (Kaitlin Olson), whose relationship with her mother is a casualty of Deborah’s relentless drive to stay on top. 

In some twisted sense, Ava has come to understand that’s what it takes to succeed. Hence, the pair swiftly relapses into their loving exchange of insults and encouragement following that gap year during which Deborah cut off all contact with her protégé.

And yet, as several characters point out, Ava welcomes Deborah’s manipulations. When she mentions to someone that Deborah “freed” her to pursue other opportunities, the person observes that makes Ava sound like Deborah’s prisoner.

Endearing as they can be when Deborah is ripping on Ava’s fashion choices and the younger comic peels back her mentor’s shielding to question her outdated ideal, the writers also recognize that’s what we find comforting about “Hacks.”  That makes it a fresh pleasure to let them stroll us through situations that challenge that status quo.

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As ever, “Hacks” episodes hum along with a fine-tuned comic cadence, buoyed by the stars’ performances along with that of Downs and Stalter. Season 3 affords Jimmy and Kayla a more extensively developed B-plot, albeit one spun out of sugar and about as substantial. Somehow they outshine the journey written for Carl Clemons-Hopkins’ Marcus, Deborah’s unflappable business manager.

That said, a late-season development spotlights Clemons-Hopkins’ confidence and the calm in their performance, reminding us how central they are to the Vance team’s winning formula. Deborah is proud to say she’ll work until the day she dies — or her legs go, as the song says. 

Such determination has its privileges, like airplane hangars full of couture or random room drops of the coveted Tom Cruise white chocolate coconut cake. But when you think about it, these prizes are as flimsy as the concepts that networks are purporting to want, which makes us question why these two women fight so viciously for bigger slices than what they already have. 

Maybe it’s because so many of us covet that life but will never attain it. “Hacks,” however, makes the battle entertaining, even when the characters we love draw blood.

“Hacks” premieres Thursday, May 2 on Max with two episodes. New episodes stream weekly in pairs on Thursdays.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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