Welcome to Up Next, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, we review the new AMC campus comedy Lucky Hank, starring Bob Odenkirk.
Just seven months after finishing his run on one of the most acclaimed shows of the past decade, Bob Odenkirk is already back on AMC with another leading role. Lucky Hank, though, is nothing like Better Call Saul or Breaking Bad. A sometimes-melancholy campus comedy about a professor who seems determined to make his life go off the rails, Lucky Hank is shaping up to be another subtle, clever, stealthily emotional work anchored by a great Odenkirk performance.
It’s worth noting that only two episodes of Lucky Hank have been made available for review ahead of the show’s premiere, but the first season will include eight in total. From what I have seen, the show is interesting and irreverent. It’s also oddly comforting – in a way that only a story based on a book written decades before discourse about safe spaces, trigger warnings, and “wokeness” turned college campuses into one of America’s silliest cultural battlegrounds could be. The plot comes from the 1997 novel “Straight Man” by Richard Russo, and while Lucky Hank is set in the modern day, it feels a bit like a Wonder Boys-esque throwback with a misanthropic streak.
The misanthropy comes mostly from Professor Hank Devereaux (Odenkirk), a professor and chair of the English department at a not-so-prestigious college. While the show’s official synopsis describes it as a “mid-life crisis tale,” its first two hours see Hank, not in crisis mode but definitely unmoored. He’s bored with his job, put off by the ambitious but unchallenged students in his class, and he approaches his own incomplete second novel with a sense of having somehow already been wronged by it. Yes, this is one of those campus stories: Hank is a middle-aged academic with a substantial chip on his shoulder. Somehow, though, Lucky Hank takes a tired setup and makes it feel fun.
The show is compelling thanks in large part to its prickly but endearing sense of humor, which is tailor-made for the liberal arts school alumni among us. Hank may be a bit insufferable, but he’s not sneering. There’s no combative, culture-war-commentary undercurrent that threatens to turn the story into bad satire. Sure, he goes viral in the show’s pilot, but it’s for a mild rant about the school’s mediocrity, and the series surprisingly side-steps any talk of “cancellation.” In fact, the whole thing mostly blows over rather quickly, giving the show a quasi-sitcom feeling as the second episode moves on to an enjoyable but fairly unconnected plot involving visiting author George Saunders.
In an odd but gutsy move, the show turns the real George Saunders, the highly decorated author of books like Tenth of December and Lincoln in the Bardo, into a character played by Brian Huskey. As with its viral rant plot, the show turns out to be more smart and playful with its depiction of Saunders than cutting. Despite centering around a man who insists he’s fed up with academia, the show itself seems to love its intellectual sandbox setting. It skewers the idiosyncrasies of the American secondary education system with generous sincerity. It’ll definitely be the only show this year with a laugh-out-loud scene centering around a departmental faculty election.
Geeky humor aside, Lucky Hank is absorbing, thanks in large part to its great cast. In the first two episodes, Odenkirk manages to play Hank as a man who’s difficult to pin down, as well as one whose image of himself is almost hilariously misrepresentative of how he comes across. He occasionally breaks out in voiceover, ostensibly reading us sections of what he’s writing, but his observations are short-sighted and cliched, and his prose nothing extraordinary. He fears being a bad writer, or worse yet, a writer who doesn’t write at all, but he also seems trapped in his own perspective. Mireille Enos, star of The Killing and Hanna, is a great scene partner here as Hank’s wife Lily. She understands Hank better than he does, but she also has her own career in education, one that she excels at despite its lack of flashiness.
While Lucky Hank may not be for everyone, thanks to its niche subject matter and smart scripts that refuse to sensationalize the mundane, it might just win viewers over with its great cast alone. In addition to Odenkirk and Enos, The Office alum Oscar Nuñez appears as Hank’s put-upon boss (former The Office actor and showrunner Paul Lieberstein co-created the series), while Better Things‘ Diedrich Bader shows up as the professor’s friend. The show’s secret weapon, though, might be Shannon DeVido (Difficult People, The Other Two), who plays Emma, a younger member of the English department who can’t even pretend to have time for her competitive coworkers’ preening drama. DeVido is effortlessly funny, and Emma steals every scene she’s in. The entire English faculty is shaping up to be a bastion of dry humor and dysfunction. However, the quietly thoughtful show lets us laugh about its characters while still writing them as three-dimensional characters.
With its throwback sensibilities and fairly niche comedy, Lucky Hank is a bit of a strange bird, but its first two episodes are extremely promising. It’s an irreverent, often bittersweet campus saga built around a talented cast, with Odenkirk’s Hank leading the way one compelling misstep at a time.
Lucky Hank debuts on AMC starting Sunday, March 19th. Watch the series trailer here.