The breakout success of the HBO hit comedy Hacks has more than proven that Paul W. Downs and Lucia Aniello are anything but. After earning 15 Emmy nominations (including three wins) and ushering in the Jean Smart-issance, the creative partners—along with showrunner Jen Statsky—knew they had something special on their hands.
With Hacks—the juggernaut HBO series featuring Smart and Hannah Einbinder as a Las Vegas comic legend and a “canceled” Gen Z comedy writer, respectively—they created not only a story about a twisted mentorship, but one about two women who need each other.
For Downs and Aniello, the reactions from fans have been overwhelming. “It’s been really emotional because it’s so gratifying for people to connect to the show and for the people in the show to be so recognized,” Downs said over the phone from his Los Angeles home, which he shares with Aniello.
While Season 1 was largely set in Las Vegas, Season 2 trades the desert for the road as Deborah (Smart) tries to refresh her stand-up routine on tour. Along the way, of course, Ava (Einbinder) suffers the consequences of the damning email she impulsively sent in the Season 1 finale. But fans can expect more of everything they loved about Hacks from the beginning. “We want them to feel the same thing they felt last year, which is in the same breath, Deborah Vance can make you laugh and break your heart,” he explains.
Ahead of the Season 2 premiere on May 12, Downs and Aniello discussed keeping the show’s momentum going, Smart’s musical moments in Season 2, and how that email will affect Deborah and Ava’s relationship.
Hacks has been such a breakout success. What has the ride been like for you guys?
Downs: It’s a dream come true that people have connected with it, that it’s been recognized and also that Jean has been recognized for the breadth of the talent that she has. She’s been working forever and is so good in so many things, but for people to see her exhibit her full range of talent, we feel lucky that we get to watch it up close—and people have been able to see it, with her as the lead.
You’re partners in the creative and in life. How do you balance those dynamics?
Downs: In episode five of this season, Deborah and Ava talk about how they can’t turn their creative process off, how it’s like a blessing and a curse. It’s one of the things that initially connected and attracted Lucia and me to each other, with our shared sense of humor and this love language that we have. Many of our “not work moments” become “work moments.” But it doesn’t feel like the word “work” even makes sense. It’s more creative moments. It means that in our personal lives, we know how to make decisions together because we’re so used to doing it creatively.
How did you approach Season 2 differently than Season 1?
Aniello: We knew that we were going on the road and that Deborah was going to be taken out of her bubble and her fortress that she’s created for herself in the desert. And the reason she’s lived in Vegas is that she was a bit walled off from the rest of the world and their criticisms. But we knew innately by putting her on the road and keeping her away from her creature comforts that it would give us a different Deborah to write. For Ava, we knew that she would be so worried about this email, and we wanted it to be more than just a plot device about an email. We really want to get to put Ava’s story and her character on this path of redeeming herself to Deborah. That was also very fresh for us.
Downs: They’ve obviously developed an intimacy over the course of the season, but they also have this dynamic of love-hate, dark mentorship. We wanted to be able to reset the dynamic. Having something like this [email] allowed us to give Deborah a bit of real estate to rib Ava and something to hold over her head so that they could have that dynamic again without it just being buddy-buddy. Also, we hope that putting them on the road together in this confined space in the middle of nowhere, allowed us to deepen the relationship. What doesn’t kill them makes them stronger by the end of Season 2.
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Deborah also sues Ava for sending that revealing email in Season 1 and thinks litigation will be a great learning experience for her. How will the lawsuit affect their relationship?
Downs: For Deborah, it’s sport. Rich people sue each other all the time. They’re constantly in and out of litigation. It is honestly like brushing your teeth for them. For Deborah, it’s both a bit and something that she gets to hold over [Ava’s] head. It’s something that she’ll constantly be able to reference to torture Ava. But also, she does think she needs to learn a lesson because she signed an NDA, and she violated it. While Deborah is a rule-breaker, she’s also a rule enforcer. It’s something that we didn’t want to make a one-off thing that went away. It actually has a payoff in the finale—I’ll just leave it at that.
After Ava reveals that she sent that email, we get a wide range of responses including a rage-fueled, crystal-throwing scene. How did that come together?
Aniello: We thought it would be really funny for the explosion of the reveal to be in the most serene place possible, and we felt like a crystal shop in Sedona would be a really funny backdrop for it.
Downs: Even as we added new-agey music to that scene, it somehow made it so much funnier to us that this woman is hurling rocks at somebody amid “spa vibes.”
Aniello: In terms of Deborah and Ava, Ava feels like she has to be honest because otherwise, she’d be a hypocrite because she’s been pushing Deborah to be more honest in her work. If she’s not honest with her about the email, then she had no right to be pushing Deborah in that way. So, she feels like she has to reveal that truth. In terms of the actual production of it, Jean is so physically adept at all of her stunts. She loves doing her own stunts, and throwing things. She ended up smashing so much stuff that I think 95% of what’s on-screen is just her throwing wildly and nailing stuff. We’ve got to figure out a way to do that more.
Downs: It also came from a line at the end of season one, “I promise I won’t hit you.” For [Ava] to say, “You said you wouldn’t hit people,” and for Deborah to say, “Well, I won’t if you move fast enough,” we thought that was a funny exchange.
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Deborah also loves to be as cheap as possible. We saw that in Season 1, and in Season 2 we experience that again on a more ridiculous level (again with antiques). Why portray her like this?
Downs: She’s a businesswoman and her point of view would be like, “How do you think I am so rich? Because I know something has value, and I negotiate for it.”
Aniello: There was something we ended up cutting from the pilot. During the fight with Marty, Deborah originally was going to take her steak and wrap it up as she was exiting. We ended up having her take a doggy bag, which is a version of it, but we thought it would have been really funny to watch her, even in that rage, wrap up a steak and take it in her purse because it was a good filet mignon worth keeping.
Downs: It’s the kind of thing that some really rich person would have their own tinfoil and Ziplock even though they’re so rich. We find that that’s such a funny, specific thing that is true to life.
In Season 2, we also get a hilarious scene where Deborah and Ava are dumpster diving, but it’s a real act of love.
Downs: Totally. For her to turn the bus around is a real act of love for Ava. It’s clear that even though she’s pissed off about this email, they really care about each other. For something like that—having to get her father’s ashes—Deborah will do anything, including getting into a dumpster.
After watching Season 2, I want a show surrounding each character.
Downs: We love all of these characters and wanted to give them moments to shine, and we really feel like, in Season 2, we got to deepen things. We got to go more introspective for Marcus and deal with the fallout of his breakup and what that does to the psyche. We got to see a lot more of Mark Indelicato’s character Damien because he’s really Deborah’s right-hand man and on the bus with them. We see more of Jimmy and Kayla because they’re dealing with this email, and a lot of what goes on with Deborah and Ava reverberates back to their office lives in Los Angeles. So, we really wanted to find a way to tell their stories, even with Deborah on the road and not necessarily just at home and seeing her ecosystem in her house.
Laurie Metcalf was also an incredible addition to the cast this season.
Downs: The woman is an absolute genius. We’ve talked about, “How can we use Laurie Metcalf?” When we wrote the character Alice, the tour manager, we were like, “Laurie would be so good for this.” Like so good for this. To actually have her do it and elevate it and be so amazing. At the end of the episode, she was like, “Don’t throw these clothes away in case she comes back,” and we were like, “Laurie, you’ve read our minds, we’re not throwing them out.”
Let’s talk about the lesbian cruise episode. How did the concept and getting Jean to sing come about?
Aniello: Well, Jean singing was because last year she came up to us and said, “I want to sing.” We were like, “Ask and you shall receive.” There are two instances of her singing this season. We’ve always wanted to put her on a ship. But then we had been talking for a long time about Deborah’s orientation and her potentially wanting to dive into Ava pushing her to explore her orientation. Because she does have a lot of jokes about not having satisfying sex with men, and she does have a lot of jokes at the expense of lesbians. So for Ava to non-judgmentally probe that, we thought let’s combine all of that. Let’s have a really honest conversation with her on a lesbian cruise and then we thought it would be interesting to have Deborah be like, “I love gay people and I am an incredible woman. Of course, lesbians would love me.” And for her to conflate them being attracted to her to being maybe I am potentially queer. Then it’s like, no, actually your biggest turn-on is narcissism.
Downs: We thought it was a really great natural backdrop, but also, it’s a flip of what Deborah does to Ava in episode 102 last year, when she says, “Are you a lesbian?” Ava is able to do that to Deborah. But beyond the comedic premise of them being on this cruise and having a backdrop to show Deborah’s ego be inflated, we were able to have that conversation on the bed which we feel is hopefully a very nuanced and specific conversation about orientation that we haven’t seen on TV before.
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Was Jean always supposed to sing Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman”?
Downs: No. That was a big debate. We didn’t want it to be too jokey or too on the nose. We thought it was funnier to be something like that. There’s a lot of pathos—it’s a very soulful song. It does lyrically match what’s going on. It’s like, “Oh, the attention I’m seemingly getting tonight at this piano bar makes me feel more in my body—makes me feel like a woman.” So it checked a lot of boxes.
What were some of the other options?
Downs: [Shania Twain’s] “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” is one we talked about. But it doesn’t feel as funny sung acoustic with a piano and it’s also a little bit jokey. There were some Cher songs we thought about, but “If I Could Turn Back Time” didn’t feel like it made much sense for the experience she was having.
Is there anything that you wanted to happen in Season 2 that you didn’t have space for?
Downs: There’s a few episodes we were trying to fit into Season 1 that we tried to get in Season 2, and we’re like, “I guess, they’re Season 3 episodes.” I can say we have one episode that happens overseas.
Aniello: I can say this, in episode six when Deborah encounters her [stalker] fan Axl, there was a time where an entire episode was just her with her stalker.
Downs: She essentially stalks her stalker.
Overall, how will we see Deborah and Ava’s relationship transform this season?
Downs: Our slogan was “build back better,” so we’re really watching them go through it together. Deborah is in a place that is more vulnerable than ever because even though her dates were threatened, and she had unstable footing last year, this year, she’s really starting from scratch. She’s really hit rock bottom, and Ava, in a similar way, is dealing with the death of her father. She’s dealing with the fallout from the email and trying to repair the relationship she had with Deborah. By the end of the season, they’ve deepened their relationship.
What do you want fans to get out of the season?
Aniello: I really hope that people feel seen by it because that is some feedback that we got Season 1, especially from the female comedians. I hope that it can be a safe harbor in a lot of ways for people for 31 minutes at a time.
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