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‘Hacks’ Season 3 at SXSW: A Case for Watching TV in a Packed Theater

“It’s a little early for comedy,” “Hacks” co-creator Jen Statsky told the audience at South by Southwest on Saturday, March 9. In her defense, it was noon, but to counter — it’s never too early for “Hacks.”

The Emmy-winning HBO comedy created by Statsky, Lucia Aniello, and Paul W. Downs has been away for two years, one of many shows proving the aphorism “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” as production delays in Hollywood kept it from its adoring fans. Those fans packed Austin’s Paramount theater on Saturday to cheer and cackle and give a standing ovation to star Jean Smart — one of the only SXSW premieres dealing not solely in hype and hope, but with a dedicated audience who know and love the series.

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“Hacks” Season 2 ended with Deborah (Smart) firing Ava (Hannah Einbinder), encouraging her to pursue her own writing career and success instead of continuing to write jokes for Deborah and getting stuck in her shadow. The decision clearly crushed Ava, and Season 3 picks up with its emotional repercussions as much as routinely catching up with characters.

But even those cursory check ins would delight this audience, who shrieked and cackled through the first two episodes. Watching TV with a big audience is always fascinating, especially a show like “Hacks”; the beats and punches (I use those violent terms quite deliberately, because the joke density of this show is dangerous) and collective laughter very much mirroring what it’s like to witness stand-up comedy — only in this case the jokes fly so fast that many were missed as the room still tittered over the last one.

In a Q&A moderated by Stacey Wilson Hunt, Smart said that the relationship between Deborah and Ava sometimes parallels her own conversations with Einbinder, “but they’re ratcheted up.” The characters’ dynamic teeters on toxic but is also incredibly magnetic (refer any doubts once again to that cackling crowd).

Though the audience only saw two episodes, Wilson asked about the upcoming season, and whispers broke out when Aniello announced to the crowd that the Season 3 finale is her favorite episode of “Hacks” ever.

“They’re both confronted with where they are in their relationship, what they think they deserve from each other, and what they actually get from each other, and we’ve really tried to bring in everything from the whole series so far, and we’ve laid it out on the table. I think there’s maybe a chasm… between where they are respectively, in terms of their point of view each other, and I think it really brings up a lot because they are so emotionally invested in each other.”

“Hacks” Season 3 premieres May 2 on Max.

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