When television goes to college, it usually focuses on college students, with their youth, cool skin, and lust for life without time, experience, or perspective. These shows offer a fantasy nostalgia for older viewers and a flattering mirror for younger ones. They are sexy by nature.
Stories that focus on faculty and administrators are of a different breed. (Netflix’s 2021 series “The Chair,” starring Sandra Oh, was a rare recent example, and it died after one season.) If they’re often as childlike as their most difficult students, these characters can carry the added burden of moral exhaustion, aging bodies and/or minds, spouses or ex-spouses and children; their the days are sinking in the red tape, the intra-departmental competition amid shrinking budgets and the pressure to just keep a job. Not so sexy!
Even so, the literary works of the shelves have been placed in this environment. A lot of writers have not only been to college, they’ve also worked at it, and age tends to play better on the page than it does coming off an 80-inch, 4K flat screen.
One such book, Richard Russo’s 1998 institutional comic novel “Straight Man,” set at a third-rate college in a struggling western Pennsylvania town, became the series “Lucky Hank,” premiering Sunday on AMC.
Bob Odenkirk plays William Henry Devereaux Jr., a writing professor and chair of the English department at Railton College. The author, years ago, of a well-reviewed but failed novel, is the estranged son of a literary critic, which is why his retirement is considered front-page news. He’s married to Lily (Mireille Enos)—reason enough to call Hank lucky—a high school principal whose patience often seems to wear thin. they have a grown married daughter, Julie (Olivia Scott Welch), who is always in need of money. Hank also has trouble urinating and is convinced, despite his doctor, that he has kidney stones because his father had them — which, aside from a name, may be all he’s inherited.
Creators Paul Lieberstein and Aaron Zelman, who co-wrote the two episodes available for review (both directed by Peter Farrelly), turned up the heat on Hank. In the novel, which is less the story of a midlife crisis than the attitude of midlife, he comes across mostly as amused or confused. Here he is more dyspeptic, cynical, dissatisfied, insecure, prone to panic and driven by insecurities. He is admittedly miserable. (Hank to Lily: “Who isn’t miserable? Being an adult is 80% misery.” Lily: “I think you’re 80. The rest of us hover around 30 to 40.”) That she hasn’t written a second novel—the failure of nerve also assigned to Jay Duplass’s character in “The Chair” – is much more of a theme in the series. While the novel-Hank has come to terms with the possibility of being just a writer of a book, the series-Hank is haunted by it.
All of these qualities lead early on to an outburst in the classroom, spurred on by a particularly tough student, the narcissistic Bartow (Jackson Kelly), who is all too sure that his work is beyond criticism. Demanding a stronger reaction from Hank, he gets it.
“The fact that you’re here means you didn’t try very hard in high school or for whatever reason showed little promise. And even if your attendance at this mediocre college in this sad forgotten town was some weird anomaly and you have the promise of genius, which I’ll bet a kidney you don’t, it will never surface. I’m not a good enough writer or writing teacher to bring that out of you. But how do I know this? Because I’m here too. At Railton College, the capital of mediocrity.”
Feeling humiliated by Hank, whose rant ends up being published in the campus paper to the general dismay, Bartow – who represents a certain kind of sensitivity – won’t just accept his apology, but insists that it be published in her paper as well campus. He is, seemingly, a nemesis in the making.
Surrounding Hank are characters as intensely individual and colorful and as competitive as the cast of any workplace sitcom. In the English department is Paul (Cedric Yarbrough), who is at war with Gracie (Suzanne Cryer). Teddy (Arthur Keng) and June (Alvina August), who are married. Finny (Haig Sutherland), pretentious. Billie (Nancy Robertson), drunk? and Emma (Shannon DeVido), who is, if anything, more sardonic than Hank. Above them is Jacob (Oscar Nuñez), the dean, who does everything to compromise but also threatens budget cuts that make the professors feel their jobs may be on the line. (Hank, who sees these threats as seasonal and empty, is more optimistic in this regard.) Dietrich Bader plays Tony, Hank’s friend and partner in the racket, who also works at the college.
With only two episodes available for review, it’s hard to say how much of “Straight Man” will find its way into “Lucky Hank.” (The opening shot, as Hank contemplates the college duck pond, suggests that at least one major incident from the book will be repeated in the series.) The novel is eventful without being particularly heavy, and in its early stages the show less like a strict translation of Russo’s novel than the establishment of a workplace that could wander in any old way and go on for years, while the book takes place over a week.
Indeed, the first two episodes contain a myriad of original scenes and plots, most notably a visit to campus by George Saunders, a real-life writer played here by actor Brian Huskey, whom Hank started out with but far outgrew. And though they’ve brought in Russo’s characters—with some changes—Lieberstein and Zelman haven’t used much, if any, of his dialogue and written their own Hank jokes, some of them better than the book’s. .
Odenkirk, who started out as a comedian, is a good choice for a character whose main mode of conversation and way of dealing with the world is dry wisecrack. (These either tend to be ignored or escalate a situation – no one ever laughs.) A more or less charming anti-hero once again – his Saul Goodman was the only thing that kept me watching “Breaking Bad” – who can or not becoming more of a hero than an anti over time, he exercises a kind of power even as he shies away from responsibility.
Enos, a soulful presence wherever she appears — “The Killing” is where many of us would have met her — is so likable that, if there’s anything off about the early episodes, it’s that you can’t help but see how Lily and Hank stayed married. One greets a scene in which they walk hand in hand with relief and hopes for more of them, not that dark comedies are meant to satisfy those hopes.
There’s something about the series that feels quaint and timely, given the current debates about the value of college and the marketability of an English degree. But people are still in college or working at one and writing books or wanting to. And even though “Straight Man” was written in a world before mass media was social and when cancellation was a word that only applied to TV shows and restaurant reservations, its social dynamics and cultural concerns are still very much alive. “Lucky Hank” amps them up to fun effect.
When: 21:00 Sunday
Rated: TV-14 (may not be suitable for children under 14)