Season 3 of Hacks deals with the comedown after a comic comeback

The third season of biting sitcom Hacks knows that good comedy isn’t made by happy, fulfilled people—Eliza Janssen hopes the show’s well-written characters find fresh notes in their comfortably chaotic double-act.

In any returning TV show—good shows, with great characters, in particular—the audience runs into a funny Catch-22 a few seasons in. We want to see the folks we’ve watched for hours on end find success; to see their humiliations and sacrifices pay off. Watching them struggle season after season with no reward makes tuning back in feel pointless (see: The Walking Dead), but pat, convenient wish-fulfilment can dull the establishment of spicy character conflict just as harmfully (see: the final seasons of Parks & Recreation).

Acerbic comedy-about-comedy Hacks knows this tension well, opening its third season with our heroines Deborah (Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder) reaping the rewards of two seasons of calamitous effort. They’re both thriving—which we love to see! Yet they know, and we know, that happy, healthy people don’t make good comedy. Something’s gotta give. The once-reluctant mentee and her besequinned, Joan Rivers analogue of a nightmare boss must be driven together again, in a gloriously funny blaze of self-destruction.

A year after her intimate and revelatory special blew up, Deborah is surrounded by yes men. “I’m working on some new material”, she tells a comedy club crowd to rapturous, meaningless applause: “it might be a little rough. (MORE LAUGHS) Why are you laughing? (THE CROWD ROARS)”. Smart never softens the edge of vanity that defines Deborah, but while she might be self-obsessed she’s also brutally self-aware and ambitious. Escaping the gilded cage of her Vegas residency days, she knows that the only way is up, and is clearly uncomfortable with easy, fish-in-a-barrel acclaim.

Throughout the pilot’s chance Montreal encounter between Deborah and her millennial underling Ava, Einbinder’s vocal-fry-laden writer is the only person in the older comic’s life who’ll admit that a dress she’s picked out to wear to a glitzy awards ceremony is hideous (“it’s fugly ass…it’s giving Big Bird”). The women need each other, and this is the first season in which we see them wanting each other’s company and attention, too. Even though Ava’s killing it at her John Oliver-esque TV writing gig, and is getting serious with her superhero actress GF, it’s her codependent relationship with Deborah that threatens to ruin that comfortable stasis. The pair are basically carrying out an affair with one another in episode two, grinning as they text, the noise of their vibrant personal worlds drowned out with each bitchy missive they send.

The first season of Hacks needed to convince Ava and Deborah to work together on vague new material, refreshing the tired boomer stand-up’s image for a late career renaissance. Season two followed them on the road, putting together the comeback special that got Deborah on the map—but it also let Ava outgrow her submissive position as tour bus joke-slave, leading to a separation that seems to have resulted in some telling mommy issue anxieties for both women. This latest chapter seems to be gamely following the successful project-oriented formula of those seasons, as a somewhat forced emergency contrivance gives Deborah a brief taste of the late night hosting brilliance she was robbed of back in the 1980s. With Ava as her sounding board, could Deb finally earn her spot behind the desk that’s eluded her all these years?

The one-liners are certainly as sharp as ever, promisingly. A fawning stylist calls Deborah a “woke queen” when she says that she was recently told Dolce & Gabbana are problematic. “Oh no, I’ll wear it”, Deborah interrupts; “I was just telling you about something annoying that happened to me.” Deborah’s embarrassing management team Jimmy (producer Paul W. Downs) and Kayla (standout Meg Stalter) struck out on their own at the end of last season, and their desperation to nab new clients and assert themselves is still consistently funny as a foil to Ava’s entitled ennui. The evolution and personal crises of Deborah’s advisor Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) hasn’t carried over into this new season quite yet, but the chaotic, intergenerational union of Deborah and Ava should spill into the neat worlds of all other supporting characters in a flurry of story-generating maelstrom.

Season three’s first episodes also briefly introduce us to Helen Hunt as a blunt network exec who should give the pair some trouble; we also get a Carrot Top cameo, and episode three is entitled “The Roast of Deborah Vance”, which will be a gag-laden treat. As the buzz around Hacks has dwindled from its opening season, however, I’m keen to see some new moves from this double-act, Emmy-winning though it may be in the ever-excellent Smart’s case. Deborah setting Ava free at the end of season two seemed to resolve that initial resentment between the two diametrically opposed characters, and now that they’re back to their squabbling, joke-brewin’ dynamic, at the expense of Ava’s personal goals and mental health, we’re in the familiar position of watching her contemporary sensibility struggle under Deborah’s old-fashioned Mae West act. I hope it offers new directions, rather than a wrong step backwards into conflict we’ve already enjoyed.

Once more, something’s gotta give—and I have a funny feeling the pair’s road to long-due late night TV status will cost them dearly. Funny being, thankfully, still the operative term here.