Paul W. Downs + Lucia Aniello on Making Season 2 of ‘Hacks’
THe breakout success of HBO’s hit comedy HacksPaul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello have proven more than once that they are nothing but the best. 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.
The reactions of fans to Downs’ and Aniello have been amazing for them. “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.
Season 1 was mostly set in Las Vegas. Season 2 sees Deborah Smart trying to rehabilitate her standup on tour. Ava Einbinder, who sent the savage email in the Season 1 finale, suffers from the effects of her impulsive decision to send it. Fans can still expect to see more of the show they love. HacksFrom the very 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.
HacksIt has achieved such great success. How has it been for you?
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 soInsist on good 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. You have to find a way to manage these dynamic.
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.
Which Season did you view differently from 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. We knew that by taking her out on the road, and keeping her from all her comforts, it would allow us to have a new Deborah to write. We knew Ava would be worried about the email and wanted to make it more than a plot device. We really want to get to put Ava’s story and her character on this path of redeeming herself to Deborah. It was also something that we were very excited about.
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 reverse the negative dynamics. This is what it would look like [email]This allowed Deborah to have some real estate and Ava something to hold onto so they could have this dynamic again, without just being buddy-buddy. We hope they will grow closer together by being on the road in this small space, in the middle nowhere. What doesn’t kill them makes them stronger by the end of Season 2.
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Deborah is also suing Ava over the revealing Season 1 email. She believes that litigation will prove to be an invaluable learning opportunity for Ava. What will this lawsuit do to their relationship?
Downs: For Deborah, it’s sport. It’s a common practice for rich people to sue one another. They’re constantly in and out of litigation. They are like you brush your teeth. 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. She does believe she must learn from her mistake. 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.
We get many responses after Ava discloses that she sent the email. One response was a furious, crystal-throwing scene. What is the story?
Aniello: It would have been really fun for the surprise to take place in the most tranquil location possible. We felt that a Sedona crystal shop would make a great backdrop.
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. She is forced to share the truth. Jean has a great deal of physical skill in performing all the stunts. Jean loves to do her own stunts and throw 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 loves being as inexpensive as she can. That was evident in Season 1. Season 2 brings it back on an even more absurd level, this time with antiques. Is it fair to portray her this way?
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:We ended up cutting something from the pilot. Deborah had originally planned to wrap her steak in plastic and take it with her as Marty was leaving. She ended up taking a dog bag. It is just a variation of that. We thought it would be funny for her to wrap up her steak in a doggy bag.
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 for Ava’s dad’s ashes, but it’s a real act of love.
Downs: Totally. Ava feels a true act of love when she turns the bus around. 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 Season 2, I am eager to see the entire series.
Downs:All of the characters are dear to us and we wanted to allow them to shine. Season 2 brought out more depth. Marcus was allowed to be more reflective and dealt with his broken heart and the impact it had on his mental health. 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. We wanted to be able to share their stories with Deborah while she was on the move and also see her home ecosystem.
Laurie Metcalf, an extraordinary addition to the cast of this season’s episode, was also a great choice.
Downs: She is an incredible 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. It would be amazing to have her actually do this and make it so much more impressive. 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. Is it possible to get Jean to sing?
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. She does make a lot jokes about men not being able to have satisfying sex, but she also makes a lot fun 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. This was the subject of a lot of debate. We didn’t want it to be too jokey or too on the nose. This was what we thought would be more entertaining. 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.
Which other choices are there?
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:Let me just say that episode 6 when Deborah first meets Deborah is my favorite. [stalker]Fan Axl: There was once a whole episode that was her and her stalker.
Downs:She 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.
How do you hope fans will take away the season’s highlights?
Aniello: Because we received Season 1 feedback from our female comedians, I hope people see it. For 31 minutes, I hope it is a place of safety for many people.
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