On ‘Lucky Hank,’ Bob Odenkirk skillfully slides from ‘Saul’ to lecture hall
As a disillusioned professor on this smart, new AMC series, the actor finds the decency in a deeply cynical character.
If there were any lingering doubts as to whether Bob Odenkirk has become one of our most versatile and skilled actors, those should be erased just minutes into the premiere episode of the AMC series “Lucky Hank.”
Odenkirk creates an instantly memorable and unique character just seven months after his final appearance in “Better Call Saul” as the indelible Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman/Gene Takavic.
That we’re able to set aside Saul and so quickly welcome one William Henry “Hank” Devereaux Jr. into our pop-culture world is testament to Odenkirk’s uncanny ability to meet the material head-on and make it his own.
8 p.m. Sundays on AMC and AMC+. This weekend’s premiere also can be seen on BBC America, IFC and SundanceTV.
(And let’s not forget Odenkirk’s transformation into a violent anti-hero in the bloody good action flick “Nobody” in 2012.)
Let’s talk about Hank, who provides occasional voice-over narration throughout the series to help us key into his mindset. Hank is the crabby, cynical, slightly rumpled, darkly funny and honest-to-a-fault chair of the English department at fictional Railton College, a second-tier institution in the Pennsylvania rust belt that’s filled with students who surely had this place checked as their safety school and faculty members who either never reached their potential or peaked long ago and find themselves stationed here and trying to stave off any further downward slides.
Hank fits squarely into the latter category, having written an acclaimed novel many years ago, followed by years of writing … nothing.
Making matters worse: Hank is saddled with the name of his estranged father, a towering literary critic who, of course, fell short in the parenting department and occupies a permanent place in Hank’s subconscious, because it’s practically TV and Movie Law that middle-aged protagonists must have serious daddy issues.
The source material for “Lucky Hank” is the 1997 novel “Straight Man” by the brilliant Richard Russo, whose works have been adapted for film and TV projects including “Nobody’s Fool,” “Twilight” (the 1998 Paul Newman movie, not the vampire stuff), “Empire Falls” and “The Ice Harvest.”
Much of Russo’s framework remains intact. But co-creators Aaron Zelman and Paul Lieberstein have put their stamp on the material.
Lieberstein was a writer and producer on “The Office” and also played Toby Flenderson. You can see his influence in the workplace scenes in “Lucky Hank,” as Hank engages in often-contentious banter with colleagues while trying the patience of Jacob Rose, the dean, played by Oscar Nunez from “The Office.”
It’s not that Hank works hard at being unlikable and unhappy. It’s just his default mode. Here is a teacher who couldn’t possibly be less interested in actually, you know, teaching. He’s too busy marinating in ennui.
Still, we often can see why Hank is exasperated, whether he’s dealing with the egos and schemes and petty grievances of his colleagues — including the hard-drinking older professor Billie (Nancy Robertson); the would-be poet Gracie (Suzanne Cryer), who claims her self-published book of sonnets on Jonathan Swift “has become the benchmark in early feminist 18th century response poetry,” and the egotistical and cheerfully abrasive Paul (Cedric Yarbrough) — or enduring the unrealistic aspirations and overly sensitive nature of some of his students.
When one student who fancies himself a great, untapped talent (he’s not) challenges Hank to deliver honest feedback, Hank lets loose with a blistering diatribe about this particular student (“It’s a tricky thing to compare yourself to Chaucer”) and the mediocrity of the students and the school, calling it this “middling college in this sad, forgotten town.” One of Hank’s students records the verbal barrage on her phone, and it goes viral, making Hank an even less popular figure on campus and putting his position as department chair in jeopardy.
Considering Hank’s overall demeanor, he’s damn lucky to have such a loving and supportive wife in Mireille Enos’ Lily Devereaux, who is a high school vice principal and handles adversity by taking late-night runs and maintaining a much more upbeat presence than her husband.
Hank and Lily also have a daughter named Julie (Olivia Scott Welch), who is still trying to find her place in this world but is overall a pretty great kid. Plus, Hank has a terrific best buddy in Diedrich Bader’s Tony. (Who wouldn’t want Diedrich Bader as a best friend?)
If Hank would just look around and gain some perspective, he’d realize it’s not true that 80% of adulthood can be summed up with “misery,” as he claims. Fine: Maybe 40%. Fifty percent, tops.
In lesser writing hands and with someone not as nuanced as Odenkirk in the lead role, “Lucky Hank” might be in danger of quickly wearing out its welcome. How much time do we want to spend with a guy who’s miserable and often makes those around him feel worse than they did a moment ago?
But in the two episodes that were made available for critics, we see moments of genuine humanity and decency in Hank — there’s no doubting his love for his wife and his daughter — and glimpses of him acknowledging that much of the criticism of him is warranted.
We’re ready to sign up for multiple semesters at Railton College. There’s a potential for real excellence there.