It’s not often a talent like Bob Odenkirk jumps so quickly from one critical darling to another show, but that’s what’s happening on Sunday in the premiere of “Lucky Hank.” No, this is not another spin-off of the “Breaking Bad” universe, but it does feature Odenkirk filling out another morally complex character on the AMC network, just without the drug cartels. William Henry Deveraux Jr. may not be as conniving as Saul Goodman, but his mid-life crisis has the potential to lead to a similar comedy of errors. The problem with assessing the potential of “Lucky Hank” comes with AMC’s decision to only send two episodes of the eight-episode first season for review, giving only a small flavor of what this show could be. It’s clearly well-acted—Odenkirk always delivers, and he’s surrounded by great character actors—and the writing is sharp enough, but it’s still only in the “promising” phase of its existence.
Odenkirk is perfectly cast as a professor at a small college named Railton. Once a successful author but not quite successful enough to be a household name, he clearly had loftier aspirations. Like many college professors, he didn’t quite get the Pulitzer he hoped for when he started his career. And he seems to be at that point where he’s just about ready to take it out on everyone around him. In the show’s excellent opening scene, Hank is confronted by a student who argues that the professor has been phoning it in for weeks, allowing peers to give feedback and barely listening himself. We know he’s not wrong because we heard Hank going over his grocery list in his head while the kid was reading. We also know Hank’s not exactly wrong when he argues that the kid is never going to win a Pulitzer himself. Why? Well, he goes to Railton. And we heard the story too.
The revolution against Hank only starts here. The student demands an apology, and Hank starts to question his role not just at school but in life. While the writing here flirts with commentary on "cancel culture," it wisely doesn't lean into that hot-button potential, at least not at the beginning. A lot of Hank's crisis seems spurned on by his famous father’s recent retirement. Hank has always existed in a massive shadow. Is this his chance to find the light? Or find something new altogether? The confrontation with the student spins “Lucky Hank” off into some pretty familiar narrative territory—we have seen so many tales of insecure intellectual men over the years—but creators Paul Lieberstein (Toby from “The Office”) and Aaron Zelman (“Damages”), working from a book by the great Richard Russo, surround Hank with some interesting personalities, and Odenkirk finds a way to make what could have been a selfish prick seem worth saving.
Said personalities include Mireille Enos (“The Killing”) as his wife Lily, Diedrich Bader as his friend Tony, and an array of familiar faces as fellow teachers, including Cedric Yarbrough and Suzanne Cryer. The show will clearly spin off into the lives of Hank’s colleagues, such as when Yarbrough and Cryer’s characters get into a spat over his loud vehicle in the second episode. The idea that the people teaching our children are petty and vindictive is not a new one, and there are times when “Lucky Hank” is a little too familiar, but Odenkirk navigates the well-trod path with enough wit and wisdom to hold the show together. When Hank complains about how his doctor was probably a B- student, he doesn’t really pause to question if the same dynamic isn’t unfolding at Railton—after all, those who can’t do it as a career, teach it.
It's a bit unfair to reduce “Lucky Hank” to such a simple statement, and I’m interested in seeing how Lieberstein, Zelman, and Odenkirk unpack the heavy baggage of these characters, people who bring more personal issues and regrets into classrooms than the students probably deserve. After all, professors are people too. We’re all fumbling through this thing called life, whether we’re a student or a professor. Only one of them has tenure.
Two episodes were screened for review. "Lucky Hank" premieres on Sunday, March 19th.