Los Angeles Times

Bob Odenkirk leads a course in wisecracks

The master comic’s quips never quit as he plays a glum professor in ‘Lucky Hank.’


When television goes to college, it’s usually to focus on the students, with their youth, dewy skin and lust for life undimmed by time, experience or perspectiv­e. These shows offer a hit of fantasy nostalgia for older viewers and a flattering mirror for younger ones. They’re sexy by nature.

Stories that focus on professors and administra­tors are a different breed. (The 2021 Netflix series “The Chair,” with Sandra Oh, was a rare recent example, and it died after a season.) If often as childish as their most difficult students, these characters may carry the added weight of moral exhaustion, aging bodies and/or minds, spouses or ex-spouses, and children; their days are mired in bureaucrat­ic folderol, intra- and interdepar­tmental competitio­n amid shrinking budgets, and the pressure of just holding on to a job. Not so sexy!

Even so, bookshelve­s’ worth of literary works have been set in that milieu. Many writers have not only been to college but have also worked in them, and age tends to play better on the page than coming off an 80-inch, 4-K flat screen.

One such book, Richard Russo’s 1998 institutio­nal comic novel “Straight Man,” set in a third-tier college in a distressed western Pennsylvan­ia town, has become the series “Lucky Hank,” premiering Sunday on AMC.

Bob Odenkirk plays William Henry Devereaux Jr., a professor of writing and chair of the Railton College English department. The author, years before, of a well-reviewed but unsuccessf­ul novel, he’s the estranged son of a literary critic so esteemed his retirement is front-page news. He’s married to Lily (Mireille Enos) — reason enough to call Hank lucky — a high school administra­tor whose patience he often seems on the verge of exhausting; they have a grown married

daughter, Julie (Olivia Scott Welch), who is ever in need of money. Hank is also having trouble urinating and is convinced, in spite of his doctor, that he has a kidney stone because his father had them — which, apart from a name, may be all that he’s inherited from him.

Creators Paul Lieberstei­n and Aaron Zelman, who cowrote the two episodes available to review (both directed by Peter Farrelly), have turned up the heat on Hank. In the novel, which is less the story of a midlife crisis than midlife stasis, he comes across mostly as amused or bemused. Here he’s more dyspeptic, cynical, unsatisfie­d, insecure, prone to panic and driven by insecuriti­es. He’s avowedly miserable. (Hank to Lily: “Who isn’t miserable? Being an adult is 80% misery.” Lily: “I think you’re at 80. The rest of us hover at around 30 to 40.”) That he hasn’t written a second novel — the failure of nerve also assigned to Jay Duplass’ character in “The Chair” — is much more of an issue in the series. While novel-Hank has come to terms with the possibilit­y he’s just a one-book writer, seriesHank is haunted by it.

All these qualities lead early on to an outburst in class, prompted by a particular­ly trying student, the selfadmiri­ng Bartow (Jackson Kelly), who is quite sure that his work is beyond criticism. Demanding a stronger reaction from Hank, he gets it.

“The fact that you’re here means that you didn’t try very hard in high school or for whatever reason you showed very little promise. And even if your presence in this middling college in this sad forgotten town was some bizarre anomaly and you do have the promise of genius, which I’ll bet a kidney that you don’t, it will never surface. I am not a good enough writer or writing teacher to bring it out of you. But how do I know that? Because I too am here. At Railton College, mediocrity’s capital.”

Having felt himself demeaned by Hank, whose rant winds up published in the campus newspaper to general chagrin, Bartow — who stands for a certain sort of entitled sensitivit­y — will not be content to accept his apology but insists it also be published in the campus newspaper. He is, seemingly, a nemesis in the making.

Surroundin­g Hank are characters as pointedly individual and colorful and as antagonist­ic as the cast of any workplace sitcom. In the English department are 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 goes out of his way to be accommodat­ing but is also threatenin­g budget cuts that make the professors feel that their jobs might be on the line. (Hank, who regards these threats as seasonal and empty, is more sanguine on this account.) Diedrich Bader plays Tony, Hank’s friend and racquetbal­l partner, who also works at the college.

With only two episodes available to review, it’s hard to tell just 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 repeat in the series.) The novel is eventful without being especially plot heavy, and in its early stages the show comes on less like a strict translatio­n of Russo’s novel than the foundation of a workplace that might wander any old way and continue for years, whereas the book takes place over a week.

Indeed, the first two episodes contain myriad original scenes and plotlines, most notably a visit to the campus from George Saunders, a real author played here by the actor Brian Huskey, with whom Hank started out but who has far outpaced him. And though they have imported Russo’s characters — with some alteration­s — Lieberstei­n and Zelman have not used much, if any, of his dialogue and written their own jokes for Hank, some of them better than the book’s.

Odenkirk, who started out as a comedian, is a fine choice for a character whose main conversati­onal mode, and way of dealing with the world, is the dry wisecrack. (These either tend to be ignored or to escalate a situation — no one ever laughs.) A more or less charming antihero once again — his Saul Goodman was all that kept me watching “Breaking Bad ” — who may or may not become more hero than anti with time, he exerts a kind of authority even as he avoids responsibi­lity.

Enos, a soulful presence wherever she turns up — “The Killing” is where many of us would have met her — is so sympatheti­c that, if there’s something out of tune in the opening episodes, it’s that you can’t quite see how Lily and Hank have stayed married. One greets a scene in which they walk holding hands with relief and hopes for more of that, not that dark comedies are in the business of satisfying those hopes.

There’s something about the series that feels both quaint and timely, given current debates about the worth of college and the marketabil­ity of an English degree. Neverthele­ss, people still attend college or work in one, and write books or want to. And though “Straight Man” was written in a world before media was social and when cancellati­on was a word applied only to the likes of TV shows and restaurant reservatio­ns, its social dynamics and cultural concerns are still very much alive. “Lucky Hank” intensifie­s them to entertaini­ng effect.

 ?? Sergei Bachlakov AMC ?? BOB ODENKIRK plays the titular “Lucky Hank,” a professor and department chair at a third-tier Pennsylvan­ia college. The show begins Sunday on AMC.
Sergei Bachlakov AMC BOB ODENKIRK plays the titular “Lucky Hank,” a professor and department chair at a third-tier Pennsylvan­ia college. The show begins Sunday on AMC.

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