What’s ahead for Deborah and Ava on ‘Hacks’? We went to the source

Evan Ross Katz is In The Know’s pop culture contributor. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram for more.

Best friends one day, mortal enemies the next. Such is the relationship between comedian Deborah Vance (Emmy winner Jean Smart) and her employee Ava Daniels (Emmy nominee Hannah Einbinder) on HBO Max’s Golden Globe-winning series Hacks.

The show recently wrapped its critically acclaimed second season with a lingering question as to whether this was the season or series finale. Whereas Season 1 ended with a cliffhanger, Season 2 seemed to end with a resolution (albeit unsatisfying) that felt somewhat final. Are these women going to be together? Is this the end of their relationship? What does that mean for their future?

“We never thought of it as a series finale, although we did think people would think it was,” says Hacks co-creator and star Paul W. Downs. Indeed they did, with many online wanting — or rather, demanding — more. “No pressure but if HBO doesn’t greenlight Season 3 of Hacks very soon I’m going to [kill myself],” tweeted Drag Race alum Katya Zamolodchikova.

Then, just two weeks after the finale, a third season was finally announced, confirming a continued life for one of television’s most dynamic duos. (“I will pack up the noose for now,” Zamolodchikova tweeted in response). A month later: 17 Emmy nominations for the series. That puts the show at 32 nominations and three Emmy wins (so far) for just two seasons.

Below, we chat with Downs and Hacks writer-director-producer Lucia Aniello about what’s ahead in Season 3, the implicit queerness of the show and what it’s like working with your spouse (the two wed in 2021 and became parents earlier this year).

First and foremost, will we see more of Devon Sawa’s Jason?

Aniello: Only his butt. Not his face. Not his body. Just his butt.

Downs: We’re going to have a lot of Lost-style flashbacks to his butt in Deborah’s mind. But really, he unfortunately lives in Memphis, so I think it’s a tall order. But I don’t want to rule anything out. I know Devon and Jean had a great time together, and they would happily do it again. So never say never.

Let’s talk Emmys. Seventeen nominations, including nods for you both. What does the recognition of this show from an award’s perspective mean to you both?

Downs: The first time we were nominated, we had never been nominated for anything. I joke that instead of EGOTs, we were NEGOTs. “Never got nothing.” It was so foreign to us to even be in the conversation around the Emmy Awards. You can read critical response—

Aniello: Or not.

Downs: Or not. And you can hear from your mom, “All my friends are watching” — which is great — but seeing all of the Emmy love was affirmation that people really do love the show. It was weirdly buoying and gave us hope for the future, because this is a show about a 70-year-old woman and a younger queer woman that she works with. It’s not something that you think is going to be mainstream. When we were first talking about the idea for the show with our agents, they were like, “A show with an older comedian in Vegas? Huh… interesting pitch.” And right now, as you well know, women are under attack in our country, so for this show to be recognized, it’s hopeful to me.

Aniello: At the very least because it shows that this audience is empathetic to a woman in her 70s. In and of itself, to be along the ride of that narrative means that you are able to see things from a perspective that might not be yours, and that’s really important to us.

You’re in the writers’ room right now for Season 3. I have a particular affinity for a third season. It’s my favorite season of Buffy and Sex and the City. The show is still fresh, but you’ve had time to settle in and get comfortable. What’s the writers’ room atmosphere like so far?

Aniello: We’re always trying to top ourselves. Season 1 was about establishing the characters and the world and letting the audience know that it’s a comedy with heart. Then in Season 2, we gave ourselves the assignment of making it funnier and sadder and more intense. So Season 3 is about going bigger than that, but with a mindfulness about not jumping the shark. We want to give the audience what they want but also surprise them. More laughs. More tears. More empathy. And hopefully a few more sequins.

Downs: She’ll no longer be on the road, which was a big departure with Season 2, so we’ll get to come home because I think people really like the Vegas element of the show and the ecosystem of Deborah Vance there. It’s interesting that your favorite seasons are season threes because it’s that sophomore effort that has the most pressure, especially with the show being so well received in season one. But you’re right — if people have taken the breath to be like, “Wow, they did it. They delivered again on Season 2,” then Season 3 can get more experimental.

How do you toe the line of being, as you mention, Paul, experimental, but also not being too experimental to verge toward, as you say, Lucia, jumping the shark? 

Aniello: Every moment, it’s constantly being adjusted. From pitch to page to set to edit, we’re constantly calibrating things to make sure they are in the zone. Something can feel really broad, like Ava unlocking an iPhone with Deborah’s Madame Tussaud’s wax figure… that’s an absurd idea, but if you can ground something, then it can work.

Downs: In the end, it’s all about the execution. If you can execute it in a way that fits the tone of the show, then you’re able to kick Deborah and Ava off of a moving lesbian cruise. You’re able to do something like that if you do it conscientiously.

Aniello: If you believe… [Laughs]

Sharks were a big metaphor in Season 2. Susan tells Deborah she was a shark, and Deborah later tells Ava that she’s got to be a shark. What do you both think? Does one need to be a shark to succeed?

Aniello: I don’t think you have to be. The times when you don’t have to are when you are supported by your community that you work with. We’ve been able to have awesome opportunities that almost always come from working and being supported by and supporting our friends. Our start in television was Broad City with Abbi [Jacobson] and Ilana [Glazer], who are friends of ours that brought us into the show. We didn’t have to be sharks because we had people that supported us. It’s the same now on Hacks. The shark is an individual thing. And when you are able to work as a collective, you are able to get a lot more done and, I think, treat people better.

Downs: I like that answer! I don’t want to disagree, but I do think there’s a connotation that being a shark suggests that you are a man-eater, that you are vicious. But the one way I do think you need to be a shark in this industry or in any creative endeavor is the idea that the shark has to keep moving. There are certainly people that aren’t sharks in the way that they are aggressive or conniving or whatever you might think, but even pleasant, mellow, low-key people are always working on the next project.

I’m wondering if you can step out of your roles on the show and answer this next question through the lens of an audience member: Where would you, the audience member, want to see Deborah and Ava go in their next chapter?

Downs: That’s so hard. We’re doing that right now in the writers’ room.

Aniello: I tend to want to see really crazy shit. I think I want to see stuff that would probably jump the shark more than we’re going to.

Downs: I want to be surprised. But I think if I was just watching the show, I’d want Deborah to get respect.

Paul, during a recent chat with Variety, you mentioned Nicole Byer as someone you’d be interested in having on the show in the future. Who are some other dream guests?

Downs: Well, sometimes we hear people have an interest, or they respond to a tweet, and then they become very interesting to us. But who do we want to say?

Aniello: Carol Burnett.

Downs: As you can see, we like working with female comedy legends. 

Aniello: I’m trying to be mindful about who I say because anyone I tell you is someone I want to actively try and get, so I don’t want to spoil if it does end up happening.

I want to put out Sarah Michelle Gellar as an option.

Aniello: Fantastic!

Downs: But of course. I’m a Buffy-head, as you know.

What’s it like working with your spouse?

Aniello: It’s amazing, it’s so good, it’s delicious. [Laughs]

Downs: We took a walk the other day, and we were talking about the show, and it’s amazing to have moments where you’re just living your life, and you see something, and you’re like, “That actually would be really funny for the show.” It doesn’t have the same pressure of being in the writer’s room and having that feeling of working.

Aniello: We do have that, too.

Down: Don’t get me wrong — we do that a lot too, but it’s nice to have those moments.

Aniello: And to get to share this with both of our families.

Downs: And in this industry, like many industries, you are often challenged with being away from your spouse or your family for so much time. I would see her truly two hours a day if we didn’t see each other 16 hours a day.

Aniello: And we just had a baby!

Who I believe is present in your post-episode interviews throughout Season 2.

Aniello: That was about four or five days before I gave birth!

Downs: And you may have heard Jean mention the fact that she had directed during her labor — in active labor.

Aniello: Like a crazy person.

Before I let you both go, is there anything concrete you can tell me about where Hacks Season 3 is going?

Aniello: [Turns to Paul] Can we?

Downs: Some of it would be huge spoilers, so it’s hard.

Aniello: Well, don’t do that. 

Downs: We know the big turns right now, but honestly, this is only day two of the writers’ room.

Aniello: Well, here’s the question, I guess: Is there anything where you’re like, “I have this big vague question about this…?”

Downs: Or just tell us what you want to see!

I’ll go with option 1. I expect that Deborah and Ava will come back together for the show to continue to operate. So I’m curious about the thing, the event, that is going to have to happen to force their continued friendship or working relationship

Aniello: Right!

And I imagine it has to have some level of permanence for the show to continue. But I also find that to be an exciting thread to be needled. It makes me think about Season 2 of The Comeback. Valerie’s life is destroyed at the end of Season 1, so the idea of her giving it a second go seemed implausible until they came up with the perfect reason to get her back in the saddle. That’s a lot from me. I want to hear from you.

Aniello: I’ll say this: What has happened at the end of Season 2, if you think of it as a romantic relationship and you want to map it out that way, it’s kind of a breakup. Yes, they have to get back together, but the way that they physically get back together and the way that they emotionally get back together are different. So the device with which you get them back in the room together is one thing, but the way to actually get them truly back together is something altogether different. How’s that? Is that something?

Downs: It may be — don’t know yet for sure — in getting them back together, we’re not sure if there’s permanence to it. Even for maybe the course of the season.

Aniello: That’s good. I like that.

Downs: I think that’s okay to say?

Aniello: Yeah! And we’ll leave it at that for now.

If you enjoyed this article, check out Evan Ross Katz examining whether or not queer characters need to come out anymore.

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