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Hacks explores a dark mentorship that forms between Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), a legendary Las Vegas comedian, and an entitled, outcast 25-year-old (Hannah Einbinder).HBO / Crave

An essential experience last year, for anyone paying attention to television, was the glorious emergence of Jean Smart in several key roles. Twenty-two years ago Smart won an Emmy for outstanding guest actress in a comedy series, for Frasier. The following year she won again, same category, same show.

A lot has changed since the year 2000, including TV itself and last year Smart, now 70, was in two prestige series that showcased her remarkable skills, in Mare of Easttown and Hacks. For the latter she won a Golden Globe and an Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series. Note the change from “guest actress” to lead actress.

Hacks (streams on Crave) is back for a second season with all the elements that made the first season so tartly funny, sometimes poignant and always revealing about age, humour and show business. The gist of the first season was this – veteran Las Vegas comic Deborah Vance (Smart), hired Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a 25-year-old up-and-coming comic and writer, to write new material. At first they loathed each other, as Ava’s angry, unfocused humour was aimed right at Deborah, who embodies the establishment. It was fraught; they bonded and fought and bonded again. As the season ended, Ava sent a scathing account to some TV producers.

Catch up on the best streaming TV of 2021 with our holiday guide

What we have now is a fun-filled resurrection story with razor-sharp wit and even more of the fraught drama about youth and age, experience, naiveté and regret. Deborah sets out on a comeback tour, having lost her Vegas residency (“Jet fuel and melting rubber. That’s Vegas baby!”) and aims to resurrect herself as an honest, rueful comic. She’s wildly optimistic, even if it’s been so long since she toured that many of her old acquaintances are dead. Ava’s on-board but nervous. She doesn’t know much about the United States except what she accrued in L.A.

Acerbic, candid and bordering on cynical comedy, the series remains a wonder to behold. There is darkness in both main characters, and it can emerge unexpectedly. You simultaneously admire Deborah’s fortitude and wit, and recoil from her treatment of her daughter DJ (Kaitlin Olson). You wonder if Deborah’s attempt to rise from the ashes of her Vegas career is a crash-and-burn story. Meanwhile back in Las Vegas, Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) Deborah’s business manager, is on a path of self-destruction and there’s heartbreak there. There is chaos fuelling the lacerating wit and Smart is masterful at being the centre of it all.

Also airing/streaming this weekend

Bedlam (on Independent Lens, Sunday, PBS, 11 p.m.) is a hair-raising and angry doc exploring the historical, political, and economic forces that have brought about a mental-health crisis in the United States. Made by psychiatrist and documentarian Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, it’s a feature-length, much-praised look at how mental illness led to mass incarceration and a housing crisis fuelled by inadequate treatment of the mentally ill. It points out that the largest mental health institution in the United States today is the Los Angeles County jail. And many of those who are not in jail are on the streets. It deals directly with the issue of “soporific drugs” from the mid-20th century being used today. The film has remarkable access and, throughout, Rosenberg weaves in the story of what happened to his sister, a woman who had schizophrenia. Not easy viewing, but very powerful.

In Bedlam, psychiatrist and documentarian Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, M.D. chronicles the personal, poignant stories of those suffering from serious mental illness.PBS

42 Days of Darkness (streams on Netflix) is a new and an unusual true-crime miniseries from Chile. In 2010, Veronica Haeger (Aline Kuppenheim), a middle class wife and mother, disappeared. Weeks later her body was found, inside her own house. Here the focus is on her sister Cecilia (Claudia Di Girolamo) who won’t stop looking for her sister. The storytelling here is grounded in the ordinary and mundane, without shocking twists or revelations. Mainly it’s about so many people’s inability to cope with the disappearance, from incompetent local police to lawyers who see dollar signs. Subdued and unsettling it’s a six-part series that manages to quietly grip you.

Finally, don’t forget The Juno Awards (Sunday CBC 8 p.m.) hosted by Simu Liu, with performances by Arcade Fire, Arkells, Avril Lavigne, bbno$, Bilal Baig, Charlotte Cardin, Chris Bosh, Deborah Cox, DJ Shub and Snotty Nose Rez Kids. In competition is the 2022 Billboard Music Awards (Sunday, NBC, 8 p.m.) hosted by Sean (Diddy) Combs and featuring among others Travis Scott, Burna Boy, Latto and Megan Thee Stallion. Also, don’t forget the wonderfully demented hock-comedy Shoresy (streams on Crave) is a must-see.

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