It is difficult for me to name a performance I appreciate more than Bob Odenkirk‘s as Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman/Gene Takovic across Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. The role was a revelation of Odenkirk’s once surprising range, comedic to dramatic, big and showy to intricately nuanced. From over-the-top in Mr. Show to action hero in Nobody – the man is a chameleon. Get ready to see him change color again for AMC’s Lucky Hank. This time around the color of choice it is overcast gray.
Based on the book “Straight Man” by Richard Russo, Lucky Hank tells the story of William Henry Deveraux Jr. (a.k.a Hank played by Odenkirk), a college professor and head of the English department who just happens to be going through a midlife crisis. Having previously published a novel, he would be considered an accomplished writer in many people’s eyes. Decades later he has yet to deliver anything else to the literary world, making him a failure in his mind.
His career disappointment has led to a life of self-inflicted torment. When gauging what percentage of their is spent in misery, Hank’s wife Lily (Mireille Enos) says 30% while he lands on a whopping 80%. Without Lily’s empathy and support Hank’s leaking ship of life certainly would have sunk by now. The resentment he has towards his father who abandoned him at a young age and the envy toward his writing peer, a fictionalized version of George Saunders (played perfectly by Brian Huskey) always ensure no matter how good of a day Hank is having his ship is always headed toward rough waters.
While typically taking more of a passive role in his public life, Hank’s midlife crisis rears its ugly head in the middle of a class discussion. A student’s request for more direct constructive criticism ends in a much darker place. Hank projects his own disappointment onto the entire student body and staff at Railton College, questioning their potential and life decisions by calling the academic institution, “Mediocrity’s Capital.” If you are looking for an inspirational tale of a teacher changing the lives of his students, so far you probably picked the wrong show to watch.
Two episodes into the eight episode season, I am uncertain where it is all heading. Once I learned Odenkirk was on board, that was all I needed to give the series a chance. I avoided all trailers and any other potential spoilers before watching. What I quickly learned is this is not another variation of his Saul Goodman character. Although I love the character, this is a very good thing. While Lucky Hank does dabble in some of the same themes as Saul, mainly the strained family dynamics, unfulfilled potential, and career envy, the tone and writing is very much fresh.
The show’s showrunners are Paul Lieberstein (The Office) and Aaron Zelman (The Killing) which partially explains the unique dynamic of the series. The preface may sound like a drama, and at times it feels like one too, but there is more at play. The series puts Hank’s work and personal life under a microscope, while taking a lightly satirical look at the state of academia in the country both from the perspective of the professors and that of the students. The latter include a student named Bartow (Jackson Kelly) the self-important 20-something who sets off Hank’s temporary meltdown by comparing himself to Chaucer and then remains a thorn in his side. Each episode serves as a reminder of why our educators deserve more respect. Budget cuts, coddling parents, job insecurity, ever-changing student demands – it’s not easy.
Making up the school faculty is a very strong ensemble including some standouts. Veteran comedic actress Suzanne Cryer as great as ever as Gracie Dubois the teacher slash poet who seems oblivious to her own pretentiousness. There is also Cedric Yarbrough as professor Paul Rourke who believes his tenure extends to parking where and how he want, and Oscar Nuñez as the dean trying to keep it all together. They are joined by others (including Shannon DeVido, Haig Sutherland, Arthur Keng, Alvina August and Nancy Robertson) who keep the teachers’ lounge full of personality and witty banter. I look forward to seeing just where they fit in as this series plays out.
Even with the heaps of critical praise he has received, Odenkirk remains one of the under appreciated actors out there (I’m looking at you Emmys). Maybe it is because of his long tenure as Saul. Well, Hank is a new character, not a variation of anything he has delivered before. Odenkirk’s performance is beautifully painful. His subtle gazes say more than any dialogue possibly could at times to convey the spirit of a man filled with regret, apprehension, envy and disappointment. He embodies both opposing sides of this man vs man story. The one thing holding him together is his relationship with his wife, Lily. Whenever Odenkirk and Enos share the screen the heart of the series beats stronger. She’s excellent and their chemistry feels effortlessly natural.
Lieberstein and Zelman keep the pacing steady, light on the highs both in the narrative and the humor. That is not a criticism, just another realization halfway through the first episode, that for best results closer attention is needed. Even with Peter Farrelly as an executive producer the broad comedy you may be expecting from a workplace comedy is not present. In its place is more clever and deadpan humor. The dark nature of much of it requires a certain amount of empathy if you are to laugh at a man of a certain age as he fails at life.
The one creative decision which I am still on the fence about is the use of Hank’s voiceover narration. My assumption is this carryover from Russo’s book and was kept to retain the feel of reading it. It has been hit or miss, leaning towards a miss. At times it does give us insight into Hank’s introspective and self-critical nature, as well as provide for some big laughs. The problem is the sporadic use of it can be jarring when it suddenly occurs after an extended absence, especially since it shifts us quickly to his perspective.
Lucky Hank may not match the weekly water cooler conversation as Odenkirk’s last two series. Then again, a quarter of the way through the season and I am still not sure what to expect. It could shift into something very different than what we have seen to this point. Will it be a redemption story or a downer of a dark dramedy? Will it lean more heavily in the comic or dramatic nature? Who knows at this point? What I do know is that Odenkirk is at the top of his game and I feel lucky to get to watch this chameleon shifting into a new hue.
The first episode of Lucky Hank premiered this past weekend on. The remaining seven episodes will air each Sunday on the network and AMC+.