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‘Hacks’ Season 3: How Jean Smart, Hannah Einbinder, Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs & Jen Statsky Navigated Strikes & Setbacks To Bring Back A Beloved Show

EXCLUSIVE: It’s late January on the Las Vegas Strip, and a woman with a tall beehive hairdo and dressed head to toe in a sequined pink pantsuit steps in front of the fountain outside Caesars Palace clutching multiple bags of high-end designer shopping. This is Jean Smart, in the guise of her Hacks headliner Deborah Vance, preparing to shoot among the last of her scenes for the much-delayed third season of the Max and Universal Television comedy series.

It has taken a long time to get here, “and part of that was my fault,” Smart tells Deadline self-deprecatingly, referring to the season’s first significant pause in production, on February 14 2023, when Smart went in for what she later described as a successful heart procedure. She announced the news on Instagram, a little under two years after her beloved husband, actor Richard Gilliland, had passed away suddenly following heart complications. “Please listen to your body and talk to your doctor,” Smart wrote. “I’m very glad I did.”

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It was a major surgery, Smart says, and her path to recovery took many weeks, but her colleagues on the show didn’t hesitate to give her the time she needed. Indeed, says co-showrunner, director and star Paul W. Downs, “Most crew people, because it’s gig work, would move on to other jobs, but everybody waited because they love Jean and wanted to come back with her to this show.”

It has been this way for the Hacks cast and crew throughout its run to date, and on set, it’s clear to see the bonds that have been formed through years of collaboration. Downs, along with his fellow showrunners Lucia Aniello (who also directs) and Jen Statsky, have fostered that environment from the start. Season 3 alone will have taken them nearly two years from start to finish, with the first words hitting the page in the s — pring of 2022, and post-production set to continue until right up to the show’s premiere date. At this point, “I feel like we’ve been 16-months pregnant,” laughs Aniello. “The baby’s baked and ready to go.”

“It’s an overwhelming sense of wanting the world to see it now,” says Statsky, with the finish line in sight.

Further complicating matters for Hacks Season 3 were the two industry strikes of last year. The show would reschedule production for May 1, nine weeks after stopping for Smart’s procedure and recovery, and then shoot for a day before the Writers Guild of America announced its intention to strike beginning May 2. Hacks was one of the first shows in production to announce a complete halt, citing the need for the writing team to be on set as scenes come together.

“We [made the decision] on day one,” says Statsky. “We write as we go, and we couldn’t do our jobs as showrunners unless we were writing. We couldn’t write, so we had to stop.”

“We wouldn’t want to make the show that way,” says Aniello. “You wouldn’t want to find some kind of loophole that allows you to keep making something, especially if you’re making a worse version of it.”

Downs says bosses were supportive of their decision. “When we told HBO that we didn’t think we could make the show the way we want to make it, they really understood. I don’t think every show had that luxury. Some people faced a lot of pressure.”

The message was heard, though, by the wider industry, and the Hacks team were grateful that the impact of their decision, and HBO’s amenability, helped other creative teams struggling to make their own cases to down tools. “It was a line in the sand,” says Statsky.

Hacks Season 3
From left: Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder in Season 3 of Hacks.

Though the writers strike came to an end in late September, the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike delayed production further, with the cast and crew gathering again, finally, in December.

“What’s good about the show is that when we’re not making it, we’re usually talking about the fact that we made it, so we tend to get to be together and live in the reality of doing the show,” says Hannah Einbinder, who plays Deborah’s co-writer Ava, the Gen-Z foil to Deborah Vance’s dated wit. “It sucks not to see the crew who make it every day when we’re not in production, but the show never feels far away. It does make me sad, because I wish this was my job forever, a little bit. I do prefer to be doing it than not doing it.”

Spirits are high this night in Vegas, one of only two or three for the cast and crew this entire season. The show predominantly shoots in LA, and has only completed a couple of days of location shooting in Sin City since the show first began. “This is the first time I’ve shot a single frame of the show in Vegas,” says Smart.

It’s a packed and varied schedule, taking in many views of Vegas with the characters present that just couldn’t be shot any other way. The scenes they’re shooting will be slotted throughout the season, and in fact the very final shot they’re capturing this week — the shot that will complete photography on Hacks Season 3 more than 400 days since it first began — will become the very first shot of the season’s premiere episode.

“I was here for a trip a couple of days between Seasons 2 and 3,” adds Einbinder, “and I remember a Blackjack dealer telling me she couldn’t believe we didn’t shoot more of the show here.”

When they first pitched Hacks to networks around town, the creative trio imagined a five-season arc for the show, and even described the very final scene in every pitch meeting they took. All except one, with Max’s comedy chief Suzanna Makkos, who would wind up buying the show. “It’s a really interesting thing,” says Downs, “because all of the networks knew the end of the show, and Suzanna cut us off before we got there and said, ‘I get the show, it’s bought, we don’t need to keep doing this.’”

“She’s the only one who doesn’t know how it ends,” laughs Statsky.

But neither do Smart and Einbinder, who both say they don’t want to know just yet. “They said they had five seasons of this in their heads, but that was it,” says Smart of her first meeting with the team. “Well, then it was five… it might be different now.”

“Yeah,” laughs Statsky, “I’m in some debt, so…”

“Our fortunes at the blackjack table tonight might dictate the future of the show,” cackles Smart.

As for what we can expect from this season, which picks up the action about a year from the moment we last saw Deborah and Ava… Well, the cast list alone was a relief for Einbinder, who remembers the moment she read the finale of Hacks’ second season, in which Deborah cuts Ava loose and instructs her to pursue her own dreams as a writer. “I had no idea what was going to happen at the end of the season,” Einbinder laughs, recalling the memory. “So, I read this last script and I just started crying. I called Jen, Paul and Lucia, and I said, ‘Am I fired?! Are you writing me off the show?’”

Of course, they quickly reassured her that wasn’t the case. “They didn’t know just how low my self-esteem was,” chuckles Einbinder, as Smart gives her a hug.

Indeed, without giving too much away about the show’s direction this season, Ava’s talents will become essential again for Deborah in the season’s very first episode, when Deborah considers once more pursuing her long-held dream to host a network late night show. Will Deborah’s dream come to pass, or will it remain as elusive as the many baubles the entertainment industry has shattered for both Deborah and Ava in the past two seasons? Hacks premieres on Max on May 2, so time will tell.

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