Lucky Hank Review: Bob Odenkirk stars in a dark comedy about science

When television goes to college, it usually focuses on the students with their youth, dewy skin, and zest for life untarnished by time, experience, or perspective. These shows offer a touch of fantasy nostalgia to older viewers and a flattering mirror to younger viewers. You are naturally sexy.

Stories focused on professors and administrators are a different breed. (The 2021 Netflix series The Chair, starring Sandra Oh, was a rare recent example, dying after one season.) While these characters are often as childish as their most difficult students, these characters may carry the added weight of the moral exhaustion and aging of body and/or mind, spouse or ex-spouse and children; her days have sunk in bureaucratic fiddling, departmental and interdepartmental competition with shrinking budgets and the pressure of being stuck on just one job. Not so sexy!

Nevertheless, bookshelves full of literary works were placed in this milieu. Many writers not only went to college but worked there, and age tends to play out better on the page than on an 80-inch 4K flat-screen.

One such book, Richard Russo’s 1998 institutional graphic novel Straight Man, set in a third-grade college in a struggling western Pennsylvania town, became the series Lucky Hank, which premieres Sunday on AMC.

Bob Odenkirk plays William Henry Devereaux Jr., Professor of Writing and Chair of the English Department at Railton College. The author of a well-reviewed but unsuccessful novel years ago, is the estranged son of a literary critic so cherished that his retirement makes headlines. He is married to Lily (Mireille Enos) – reason enough to call Hank lucky – a high school administrator whose patience he often seems to see on the verge of exhaustion; They have an adult married daughter, Julie (Olivia Scott Welch), who needs money all the time. Hank also has trouble urinating and, despite his doctor, is convinced he has a kidney stone because his father had it — which, aside from a name, might be all he inherited from him.

Creators Paul Lieberstein and Aaron Zelman, who co-wrote the two episodes available for review (both directed by Peter Farrelly), have revved up Hank. He mostly appears amused or amused in the novel, which tells less of a midlife crisis story and more of a midlife stasis. Here he tends to be dyspeptic, cynical, dissatisfied, insecure, prone to panic and driven by insecurities. He is avowedly unhappy. (Hank to Lily: “Who isn’t unhappy? Adulthood is 80% misery.” Lily: “I think you’re in 80. The rest of us are hovering around 30 to 40.”) He doesn’t have a second Roman wrote – the nervous breakdown also attributed to Jay Duplass’ character in The Chair – is much more of a theme in the series. While Roman-Hank has come to terms with the possibility that he’s only a one-book author, Serial-Hank is haunted.

All of these traits lead to an early outburst in the classroom, sparked by one particularly hard-working student, the self-admiring Bartow (Jackson Kelly), who is fairly certain his work is beyond reproach. He demands a stronger reaction from Hank and gets it.

“The fact that you’re here means you didn’t try very hard in high school or showed little promise for some reason. And even if your presence at this mediocre college in this sad, forgotten city was a bizarre anomaly, and you have a promise of being awesome, and I bet you don’t, it will never surface. I’m not a good writer or writing teacher to tease you out of. But how do I know? Because I’m here too. At Railton College, the capital of mediocrity.”

Odenkirk as an argumentative writing professor at the fictional Railton College.

(Sergei Bachlakov / AMC)

After feeling humiliated by Hank, whose tirade is published in the campus newspaper, much to everyone’s chagrin, Bartow – who represents a certain brand of legitimate sensitivity – won’t be content with accepting his apology, insisting that she does too published in the campus newspaper. He’s apparently a nemesis in the making.

Surrounding Hank are characters as distinctly individual and colorful and as antagonistic as the cast of any workplace sitcom. In the English division are Paul (Cedric Yarbrough), who is at war with Gracie (Suzanne Cryer); Teddy (Arthur Keng) and June (Alvina August), who are married; Finny (Haig Sutherland), overbearing; Billie (Nancy Robertson), drunk; and Emma (Shannon DeVido), who, if anything, is more sardonic than Hank. Above them is Jacob (Oscar Nuñez), the dean, who tries to be accommodating but also threatens budget cuts that leave the professors feeling their jobs may be on the line. (Hank, who sees these threats as seasonal and empty, is more confident in that regard.) Diedrich Bader plays Tony, Hank’s friend and racquetball partner who also works at college.

With only two episodes available for review, it’s hard to tell how much of Straight Man will find its way into Lucky Hank. (The opening shot of Hank contemplating the college duck pond suggests that at least one major incident from the book will be repeated in the series.) The novel is action-packed without being particularly plot-heavy, and comes in its early stages the show feels less like a rigorous translation of Russo’s novel and more like starting a workplace that could go any old way and last for years while the book takes place over a week.

Indeed, the first two episodes contain tons of original scenes and storylines, most notably a visit to the campus of George Saunders, a real-life author, played here by actor Brian Huskey, who Hank started with but greatly surpassed . And while they imported Russo’s characters – with some modifications – Lieberstein and Zelman didn’t use much of his dialogue and wrote their own jokes for Hank, some of them better than the book’s.

Odenkirk, who started out as a comedian, is a good choice for a character whose primary mode of conversation and dealing with the world is dry wit. (These are either ignored or escalate a situation – no one ever laughs.) Another more or less charming anti-hero – his Saul Goodman was all that made me watch Breaking Bad – who may or may not become more of a hero than Anti-time, he exercises a kind of authority even as he avoids responsibility.

Enos, a soulful presence wherever she appears — “The Killing” would be where many of us would have met her — is so likable that if anything is off-key in the opening episodes, you can’t quite see how Lily and Hank are have stayed married. One greets a scene where they walk holding hands with relief and hopes for more of the same, not that dark comedies aim to satisfy those hopes.

There’s something about the series that feels both quaint and contemporary given the current debates about the value of college and the marketability of an English degree. Despite this, people still go to college or work in college and write books or want to do so. And although “Straight Man” was written in a world before media was social and cancellation was a word used only for TV shows and restaurant reservations, its social dynamic and cultural concerns are still very much alive. “Lucky Hank” ups the ante in an entertaining way.

“lucky hanks”

Where: AMC
If: 9 p.m. on Sundays
Rated: TV-14 (may not be suitable for children under 14)

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