I’ll get this out of the way now: Lucky Hank, the new academic satire series on AMC, is based on Richard Russo’s 1997 novel Straight Man, and no, it doesn’t really follow the book. I mean, it still follows the misadventures of William Henry Devereaux Jr, or “Hank,” a one-hit-wonder novelist and the chair of the English department at a small Pennsylvania liberal arts college, during one week of his life when everything goes off the rails.
Straight Man is a novel about a guy who uses humor and sarcasm and an overly lighthearted approach to everything as defense mechanisms against what he perceives as the craziness of the world around him, until the week when he must reckon with it all. Lucky Hank is about a guy who is similarly coasting through life, (barely) animated by a combination of depression, apathy, self-loathing, and general midlife crisis stuff until he eventually hits a breaking point.
Straight Man is a farce, a picaresque, a story full of extremes, ping-ponging from slapstick to sudden, heart-wrenching pathos. Lucky Hank concentrates more on “the pathetic” in the other sense of the word, hovering in a tonal “why God?” kind of hapless, maddening misery. If you’ve read Straight Man, it takes a second to shake into the new mode (after you’re done wondering if Occam, Hank’s large, crotch-sniffing dog, will appear).
Straight Man is a fable with academia as its incidental playground.
But Lucky Hank is interesting enough on its own, mostly for its performances but also occasionally for its plot modernizations. Its very existence in a moment where “campus stories” are attempting to say meaningful things about some of the issues present in higher education (as in The Chair), makes it worth watching. (For the record, though, I don’t think it pulls this last thing off, especially because it would have to run a greater distance from its source material to do that. Straight Man is a fable with academia as its incidental playground. It’s nowhere near an indictment, an inquest, or even an inquiry into how academia functions.)
Anyway, Bob Odenkirk, a man who can do anything and does everything well, plays Hank in this series, which was developed by Paul Lieberstein and Aaron Zelman, and premieres on AMC on Sunday, March 19th. He has long-ago accepted his own mediocrity, and is weary of teaching pretentious, overeager young writers, especially a young man named Bartow Williams-Stevens (Jackson Kelly) who accuses Hank, during class, of constantly phoning it in.
His department of squabbling, petty academics want him de-chaired because he doesn’t really seem to care about anything, and his friend Jacob, the dean of faculty (Oscar Nuñez), begs him to keep it together. His wife Lily (a wonderful Mireille Enos), a problem-solver in her own job as a vice principal at a nearby school, is still encouraging him to try, to push himself. His daughter Julie (Olivia Scott Welch) and her husband Russell (Daniel Doheny) want to borrow money. Only his blithe best friend Tony (Diedrich Bader) provides him with needed catharsis during their habitual, laughter-filled squash game.
Things escalate when Hank’s old rival, the writer George Saunders (played by the comedian Brian Huskey), arrives on campus for a talk, and his estranged Columbia professor father (a Harold Bloom/Stephen Greenblatt-style luminary) makes vague contact with him for the first time in years. George is the big problem for a while; he’s kind of annoying, a little dismissive, overly encouraging of some of Hank’s petulant students. Mostly, he stands as a reminder of what, who, Hank could have been. (Not for nothing, the un-George Saunders-ing of George Saunders is the show’s most curious development.) Meanwhile, Hank’s demanding mother, a urination problem, and the brewing department mutiny feed his daily exhaustion and frustration. And then he accidentally becomes the villain of an on-campus student revolution.
The un-George Saunders-ing of George Saunders is the show’s most curious development.
Odenkirk’s Hank is visibly weighed down by these problems more and more; he looks more drained, sounds more gravelly-voiced, seems more beaten-down with every passing scene. This might seem a little taxing of a tone, so the show tries to balance it by spotlighting less-beaten-down supporting characters in an assortment of B-plots, especially two English professors with a surging feud between them (Cedric Yarbrough and Suzanne Cryer), and Hank’s wife Lily, who is trying to mediate a particularly difficult mire at work. The exasperating Bartow, who embodies wealthy white male privilege to an extreme, is also given a lot of screen time as he attempts to cook up a scheme to get Hank fired. Still, these alternating subjectivities (which is actually something Hank criticizes Bartow’s terrible short story for) don’t necessarily deepen the series, especially because it is, at its core, about Hank’s personal issues, which are often rather sad.
All of this makes the series’s (faithful-to-the-book) moments of slapstick, which are all directed at him, rather surprising. The moment in which an angry poet slaps Hank with her spiral notebook, lodging the wire in his nose, becomes just another reason for Hank to want to lie down in bed and never get up, rather than a riotous office bloodbath. (Only the first two episodes have been made available to critics, but the trailer promises that one of the book’s most famous, funniest scenes, when Hank picks a fight with a goose he names after a pompous colleague, remains in the show as well.) The pilot is directed by Peter Farrelly, whose goofy sensibilities aren’t a suitable counterweight for the show’s understated and wry beats.
I think the issue with Lucky Hank is that it takes its “satire” source material for granted. Much of the show’s vibe is an insistence that it provides a razor-sharp, piquant critique or mockery that never really sticks around, if it even shows up. To that point, I actually don’t know what the title phrase, “Lucky Hank,” is supposed to mean, unless it exists once again to assert that the show’s main motif is sardonicism, to raise an umbrella of sarcasm over a show that constantly forgets that sarcasm is a tool. Odenkirk, even when he jibes or is darkly blunt to his colleagues or students, is still both earnest and enervated. It’s a good performance, but it only matches half of Lucky Hank‘s tone.
But Hank is still a worthwhile hero; Odenkirk makes him likable even despite the lethargy and listlessness. It’s clear that the show’s most empowering force is the hope for Hank to finally stand up and do what he needs to do. I really do wish him all the luck.