Bob Odenkirk’s return to AMC, just eight months after his show-stopping final season in the network’s masterpiece Better Call Saul, gets off to a worrisome start. As the title character of Lucky Hank—a cranky, bushily bearded, professionally stunted chair of the English department at a fictional liberal arts school called Railton College—he lashes out at a defensive student in his undergrad writing workshop. Railton, “this middling college in this sad, forgotten town,” is a “mediocrity capital,” Hank seethes. Word of the rant travels fast, making him a pariah on campus. His position of power in the department is suddenly in jeopardy.
It sounds a lot like Netflix’s 2021 Sandra Oh vehicle The Chair—not to mention every repetitive, nuance-free bit of discourse on “cancel culture” in academia that we’ve had to absorb over the last several years. But thankfully, this adaptation of Richard Russo’s 1997 novel Straight Man, debuting March 19, moves quickly past its exhausting setup, as well as a premiere plagued by stilted dialogue and tonally dissonant slapstick. (We can probably blame the latter on its director, Peter Farrelly.) Delivered with a finely calibrated mix of vitriol and self-loathing, Hank’s diatribe serves mostly to situate the wonderfully expressive Odenkirk at the center of an observant, if slight, character study about an aging author wrestling with his own inertness.
Hank’s meltdown accelerates what has apparently been a slow-motion existential crisis. His eccentric, undistinguished colleagues (“My book of sonnets on Jonathan Swift has become the benchmark in early-feminist 18th century response poetry,” one boasts) have grown weary of his cynicism. His wife, Lily (an affable Mireille Enos), an incongruously sunny vice principal, is taken for granted at the high school where she’s expected to keep the peace. And their adult daughter, Julie (Olivia Scott Welch), is always begging for money to fund her boyfriend’s get-rich-quick schemes. Meanwhile, Hank has published exactly one mostly forgotten novel over the course of a 30-year career. And that was in the ’90s. His decades of writers’ block might have something to do with the fact that his estranged father, now on the verge of retirement, is a literary critic of national renown.
This is a low-stakes story, to be sure. Some awkwardly integrated voiceover narration from Odenkirk, which reveals a perverse sense of humor rarely glimpsed in Hank’s out-loud interactions, suggests that co-showrunners Aaron Zelman (The Killing) and Paul Lieberstein (The Office) had to strain a bit to make Russo’s book work on screen. But Lucky Hank is full of small pleasures, beginning with its cast. There are fun supporting characters and appealing performances, from Oscar Nuñez as a soft-spoken yet sneakily political dean to Suzanne Cryer as the aggrieved co-worker of many badly behaved men. There are plenty of Easter eggs for readers of contemporary literature. The second of two episodes sent for review heavily features George Saunders, gamely appearing as himself in a story line that casts him as a more successful contemporary and former friend of Hank’s. And whenever the show threatens to linger for too long on Hank’s quiet desperation, Zelman and Lieberstein liven up the mood by delving into the careerist maneuvers and petty feuds that consume Railton’s English faculty. Hank is no Saul, at least for now, but if you’re a fan of Odenkirk (who isn’t?) and campus drama is your flavor of narrative comfort food, then go ahead and dig in.
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