‘Lucky Hank’ Review: Bob Odenkirk Is Unsurprisingly Great in an AMC Campus Dramedy That’s Still Figuring Itself Out
If anybody deserved a break after completing the acclaimed run of Better Call Saul, it was Bob Odenkirk.
Odenkirk spent six seasons delivering an Emmy-worthy performance as the lead in an Emmy-worthy show, and somehow found a way to star in Amazon’s Undone, do a season of the Mr. Show-adjacent W/Bob & David for Netflix, play a key supporting role in The Post and a surely arduous lead role in Nobody, and to fit in various cameos and guest turns along the way. With all that happening, why aspire to be the cable version of David Boreanaz — a broadcast TV regular without pause since 1997 — at the same time?
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Well, if Breaking Bad was Odenkirk’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a key supporting role that became more important to the overall show as it progressed) and Better Call Saul was his Angel (a spinoff that didn’t inherently seem like a great idea, but became arguably as good as the original), AMC’s new hourlong comedy Lucky Hank might just be his Bones.
In Lucky Hank, Odenkirk gets to be first among equals in a deep ensemble — more on that in a bit — on a series that may lack the top-to-bottom artistic commitment of his earlier shows, but has the sort of versatile engine necessary for a longer run.
Based on the two episodes sent to critics, it’s easy to see why Odenkirk gravitated toward Hank Devereaux. It’s a good part, tailored well to Odenkirk’s strengths without many traces of Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman, with the potential to evolve into something great. As for the series? Well, it’s trying to find an identity that’s separate from its Richard Russo source material. As of now, it’s mostly a work-in-progress, but there’s ample potential for it to evolve into something good.
Lucky Hank may have changed its title from Russo’s Straight Man, but it begins with the general shape of the novel. Hank is the head of the English department at Railton College (standing in, fictionally, for the already fictional West Central Pennsylvania University from the book). When he isn’t dealing with the various petty grievances from the department’s low-achieving staff or playing racquetball with his horndog pal Tony (Diedrich Bader, solid as always), Hank is struggling with his own insecurities. His father is a giant in the field of literary criticism, while Hank wrote one decently received book decades ago and has barely started a second. He lacks the motivation to adequately teach his students, to adequately parent his 20-something daughter (Olivia Scott Welch’s Julie) or to properly appreciate his endlessly tolerant gem of a wife (Mireille Enos’ Lily). Hank is so exasperated by everybody and everything around him that he’d be a lot like Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm if he had enough motivation to be a committed curmudgeon.
The series hasn’t really gotten to the instigating event from the book — fans of the threatened abuse of waterfowl will have to be patient — so the series gets its initial juice from a classroom breakdown in which Hank’s rant about the mediocrity of a pretentious and awful writing student (Jackson Kelly’s Bartow), the university and himself goes viral. This puts his position and possibly the funding for his entire department in jeopardy.
Russo’s novel did a very good job of anticipating the conversations that are ongoing in English departments around the country, and series creators Paul Lieberstein and Aaron Zelman have smartly avoided turning Lucky Hank into some sort of generational lament about the eccentricities and entitlements of millennials or Gen Z; they generally duck the sort of evocations of “wokeness” or “cancel culture” that so many shows would indulge in under similar circumstances. Maybe you have to have a certain academic-skewing sense of humor to laugh at a professor insisting that “My book of sonnets on Jonathan Swift has become the benchmark in early feminist 18th century response poetry,” but I liked a lot of the specificity to the colliding of egos at the center of Lucky Hank.
As the character with the biggest ego and the biggest insecurity complex, Odenkirk is exceptional, balancing Hank’s combination of erudition and self-loathing and embracing the story’s occasional bouts of zaniness, which early director Peter Farrelly actually downplays from the book. It’s tough to write a character who isn’t motivated enough to have motivations and it must be even tougher to play, but Odenkirk makes Hank relatably and frustratingly adrift. I’m sure some viewers will find Hank unsympathetic. And he is, especially opposite Enos, doling out equal measures of radiance and put-upon domesticity. Retaining Lily’s backbone and autonomy, a struggle in the book, is one of the most important things the show will need to do going forward, and it’s one of the things the show forgets to do in the second episode.
In the book, the perspective is exclusively Hank’s and if the supporting characters initially emerge only as quirky foils, it’s because Hank is so solipsistically fixated on his own dramas — the looming specter of his father’s legacy, the looming blockage of possible kidney stones, the multiple women he may be platonically in love with — that he can’t see anybody else’s humanity. It’s a recipe for a great literary character but not necessarily the protagonist of an ongoing series.
After a pilot that keeps Hank as the fulcrum, the second episode feels like a change of course with an eye toward elongation. I understand and endorse the need to dimensionalize the supporting characters, especially with an ensemble of very strong veterans including Cedric Yarbrough, Suzanne Cryer and Oscar Nuñez, for the show’s long-term future. But the early secondary storylines handed to those supporting characters border on entirely generic and even sitcom-y. Every time the second episode left Hank behind and followed one of the other characters, my attention waned — a bad sign in an episode in which I was already distracted by the questionable decision to have recognizable and generally terrific character actor Brian Huskey playing real-life literary titan George Saunders making a visit to Railton, rather than just casting Huskey as a character who was Saunders-esque.
Although I liked where the Hank/Saunders storyline eventually progressed, and I thought Cryer played the final beat of her episodic plot beautifully, the second episode definitely didn’t make me feel like the writers had cracked the task of expansion that will be necessary for Lucky Hank to become a 10-season show rather than a two-hour movie. I do want to single out Shannon DeVido, who steals every departmental scene as a deservedly infuriated film professor. The show needs to find ways to give Odenkirk and DeVido more scenes together.
With humanities departments facing an existential crisis at colleges and universities around the country, Lucky Hank is very much a show of its moment — the similarly themed Sandra Oh Netflix series The Chair may have suffered from being five minutes ahead of the zeitgeist. This show’s ability to settle in for a long run will not depend on Odenkirk, who’s instantly comfortable with what should be another indelible character, but on bringing everything around him up to his level.