Lucky Hank is now streaming on AMC+
It’s a bit ironic that Bob Odenkirk is bringing his post-Better Call Saul star power to playing a man grappling with his irrelevance as William Henry Devereaux Junior in Lucky Hank, a limited series adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo’s 1997 novel Straight Man. After leading one of the most acclaimed shows of the past decade, Lucky Hank feels like a pleasant palate cleanser for Odenkirk, a witty if inconsistent takedown of academia that is easy to watch and lets Odenkirk shine amidst a strong ensemble cast.
The pilot episode demonstrates that creators Paul Lieberstein and Aaron Zelman have taken some scenarios directly from Russo’s novel, like Hank getting his nose snagged in a binder cord during an altercation with poetry professor Gracie DuBois (Suzanne Cryer), but largely used the general characters, setting, and tone to chart their own path. Odenkirk brings his usual dry charm to antagonizing his colleagues and students alike as the misanthropic chair of the English department at Railton College, a middling school in rural Pennsylvania.
Hank has largely contented himself with coasting on tenure, checked out as his insufferably pretentious students share their work, beg him for feedback, and then question every bit of his advice. He mentions in class that shifting perspective can alienate the reader, something that seems a bit meta given how the show occasionally drops into voiceover from Hank. The choice doesn’t work any better for Lucky Hank than it does for Hank’s mediocre student, distracting from the better interplay between characters or even just quiet shots of Hank moping about how the one novel he published 20 years ago hasn’t left the mark he’d hoped.
Railton’s English department is an entertaining caricature of the cutthroat nature of academia, with the pilot involving plenty of politicking led by Gracie with the help of transparently scheming couple June and Teddy Washington-Chen (Alvina August and Arthur Keng). Shannon DeVido particularly stands out as Emma Wheemer, a professor who manages to stay on the periphery of her colleagues’ antics while wielding a wit that’s just as sharp as Hank’s. Oscar Nunez rounds out the cast as Dean Rose, using the same exasperated tone he often brought to The Office as he tries to get Hank to do his job.
The tone is a bit scattered, mixing Community’s ridicule of academic pretension with Wonder Boys’ brooding examination of the weight of being a literary one-hit wonder. There’s also some more conventional family drama as Hank’s perpetual pessimism and unwillingness to change clashes with the worldview and aspirations of his wife Lily (Mireille Enos). Her work as a vice principal, desperately trying to avoid conflict between parents and teachers even when everything indicates that some drastic action needs to be taken, is a not especially subtle metaphor for the state of their marriage.
The intergenerational conflict between Hank and his students and daughter Julie (Olivia Scott Welch) sometimes dip into the territory of bashing Millennials and Gen Z in a way that practically begs the characters to shout “OK boomer” at him. But it also provides the opportunity for some great jokes, particularly as the oblivious and entitled Julie tries to emotionally manipulate Hank with the power of nostalgia in order to avoid asking her mom for money. “She said if I borrowed money again she’d make me sit down and learn Quicken, which isn’t me, you know,” Jullie whines.
Lucky Hank photos
Looming over the whole pilot is Hank’s father and namesake, a legendary literary critic who hasn’t spoken to his son in 15 years. But with William Henry Devereaux Senior’s retirement and separation from his third wife, it seems likely that he may attempt some form of reconciliation out of necessity, even as Hank is grappling with the possibility that he may never distinguish himself enough to step out from his father’s long shadow. There’s nothing particularly innovative about exploring daddy issues through fiction, but with Odenkirk leading the story, it’s worth sticking around to see exactly how things play out.