What the show really nails about academia is the precise way all this isn’t enough: Hank has only ever published one novel — he’s a failure, by academic standards — and his resentment toward his father, a famous literary scholar who abandoned him when he was 14, spills into his teaching, his department and his life.
For the most part, the dramedy shines thanks to solid acting, perfect casting and a keen eye satirizing academia, even if it can sometimes feel like an essay without a thesis. It’s hard to tell what the show is about, but, oddly, that’s turns out to be a strength.
The pilot opens with a peevish Hank trying to ignore that he learned his dad was retiring via a celebratory newspaper article on the front page of the arts section. He’s moody and disengaged in class, “leading” a workshop while pondering lunch. When a self-important young windbag named Bartow (played to perfection by Jackson Kelly) rather reasonably asks Hank to say something — anything — the latter launches into a scathing but accurate sendup of Bartow’s writing and accuses him (and the student population, and the college) of mediocrity. His rant is recorded, of course. It provokes a small and amusing scandal but cancel culture is not, thankfully, the subject of the series.
In fact, it’s hard to say (based on the two episodes critics received of eight total) what the subject of the series is. That’s not a bad thing. The show actually benefits from refusing to center any particular theme or crisis beyond vague, midlife dissatisfaction in search of a cause. (Hank is just as crabby when he thinks he’s going to be a grandfather as he is when he learns he in fact isn’t.)
You could say “Lucky Hank” is about the English faculty over whom Hank halfheartedly presides as chair, although that’s only about a third of the goings-on. The casting is great. Shannon DeVido and Suzanne Cryer are particularly good — Cryer plays Gracie, and if her character sometimes strays into parody (her book of sonnets on Jonathan Swift “has become the benchmark in early-feminist 18th century response poetry”), her performance, her carriage and even her pronunciation all feel strikingly true to type. DeVido’s Emma Wheemer — a weary professor prone to negging people she admires and regretting it — feels like people I actually know.
It’s also about Hank’s family (sort of). And writer’s block (sort of). He insists to his wife that his outburst in class inspired him to work on his novel. “Oh! Great! Well, I love it when you start a second novel,” she replies, deadpan. “It’s usually a wonderful time in our marriage.”
It’s also about professional envy. In the second episode, Hank’s much more successful peer “George Saunders” (the author is played by Brian Huskey) visits the college. And the show is two ticks better than it should be when it comes to scenarios like the “cancel culture” scandal above: Bartow, the student who criticizes Hank, may be insufferable, but he is absolutely correct: Hank is a bad teacher. (Saunders is a great one, and Bartow naturally loves him.)
The good parts above are really good, so good that the show’s less successful aspects are easy to overlook. Like the voice-over, which is tonally bizarre — most of his “thoughts” are generic rants about society, more akin to blog posts or bad stand-up comedy than anything real people might privately think or feel. (These feel like imports from Richard Russo’s novel “Straight Man,” on which the series is based, but Russo is funnier than Hank.) Hank’s friendship with Tony (Diedrich Bader), a type I’d expect the ranty voice-over guy to hate, is strangely inert.
And, as a sendup of the academy, some stuff doesn’t quite ring true. A small non-spoilery example: in his “impolitic crank” mode, Hank jokes about wanting the (tiny) royalties from his colleague Gracie’s self-published book of sonnets. The problem isn’t the meanness. It’s that there’s no way Gracie’s book would be self-published (there are a LOT of small presses) and, more importantly, no academic in the world would consider their book not being profitable a burn.
What the show gets right, by contrast, is that no one in their right mind actually wants to be department chair!
The amorphousness of the series — which zings between parodic edge and epiphanies — might be a function of its peculiar DNA. “Straight Man” was published in 1997, a very different time in the academy. And while the show is spearheaded by co-showrunners Aaron Zelman of “The Killing” and Paul Lieberstein of “The Office,” the pilot is directed by Peter Farrelly. (Yes, that Peter Farrelly. He also executive produces.)
Most notably, of course, it stars the actor best known — in drama, anyway — for playing Saul Goodman in “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.” It’s fun to watch Odenkirk, who excelled at that character’s seedy patter, tackle literary criticism and tetchy, resentful respectability. I couldn’t imagine him as an academic but he’s quite good, and playing men wounded by their male relatives is — for the guy who made Jimmy McGill into Saul — child’s play. That said, his performance is strongest when he lets a little gentleness shine through. Odenkirk just isn’t entirely convincing as a snob, and whenever the show narrates him as explosive or even woundingly sarcastic, I think of that episode of “Seinfeld” where Jerry tries to prove to a girlfriend that he really can get mad.
“Lucky Hank” works because a lot of its people feel real despite the antic setups and mannered voice-overs. Every scene Mireille Enos and Odenkirk have together is perfect. And if the show sometimes feels like a student essay without a thesis, that’s not a criticism. It might in fact be dabbling in some other fun experimental moves, though it’s hard to confirm that two episodes in. Here’s what I mean: When Bartow challenges Hank to actually critique his story in the pilot instead of zoning out, he does — with lacerating precision, pointing out that the young author’s desire to messily narrate his characters’ thoughts is inconsistent and incompatible with reality.
Which, of course, is roughly what’s happening in the scene, producing a sort of meta commentary on itself. Because while the student reads aloud, we hear Hank’s thoughts in voice-over. He’s not listening to the story; he’s thinking about food.
Or so we think! The reveal is that Hank was listening all along, somehow. When pressed, he turns out to have perfect mastery of what the story says and why, even at the sentence-level, it doesn’t work. The dull voice-over we were listening to wasn’t just uninspired. It was, to the extent that we understood it to reflect Hank’s thoughts in that moment, a lie.
That’s either sloppy or brilliant. Here’s hoping it’s the latter.
Lucky Hank (eight episodes) premieres Sunday on AMC. New episodes air weekly.