Series Review: “Lucky Hank” traps Oedenkirk in Academia

The academic turned Pulitzer-prize-winning novelist Richard Russo’s college-set comedy “Straight Man” becomes the latest Bob Oedenkirk AMC+ series, casting him as a writer/English dept. chair in mid-midlife crisis — “Lucky Hank.”

It’s a droll comedy about witty, petty, self-absorbed academics, snowflake students and the low-stakes turf wars of academia, a dryer-than-dry comic cocktail in the ballpark of Netflix’s “The Chair.” Watching it one can both raise one’s hopes, and understand why Netflix cancelled that Sandra Oh series after just a season. I got the distinct impression that AMC saw that, too, and budgeted “Lucky Hank” accordingly.

Oedenkirk plays William Henry Deveraux, Jr., the chairman of Railton College’s fractious, back-biting eight member English department. He is married, apparently happily, to the college’s queen of smoothing troubled waters (Mireille Enos of TV’s “The Killing” and “Hanna”), crisis counselor for the college. He published one novel, decades ago. He’s the estranged son of a just-retired famous literary critic.

And now he’s teaching a fiction-writing workshop, a never-quite-has-been listening to delusional students try their hand at what they’re sure will make them famous.

Our story begins the day Hank is challenged, mid-daydream, by a rich kid (Jackson Kelly) who figures he’s the next Don DeLillo. One sneer too many, a personal attack on “your only novel” and where Hank ended up, sets him off.

His meanest comeback? “You’re HERE! The reason you’re here really shows that you didn’t try very hard in high school.”

Queue the campus-wide outrage, the demands for his firing start high (Oscar Nuñez from “The Office” is the harassed Dean of Faculty) that spill over into a “de-chairing” effort in his department. And the kid expects an apology.

Hank copes with this amidst his years-long writer’s block, fresh problems involving his over-achiever dad, the constant mooching of his married daughter (Olivia Scott-Welch), and threatened budget cuts that he may be facing even if he’s deposed as department chair.

In the second episode, a longtime friend (Brian Huskey) who was first-published at the same time as Hank, triggers more angst when he comes for a richly-compensated public Q & A that his old pal Hank is expected to moderate. The department revolt — Suzanne Cryer, Cedric Yarbrough, Shannon DeVido, Arthur Keng, Nancy Robertson, Haig Sutherland and Alvina August — climaxes just as many faculty “types” turn on each other and bigger issues settle onto the horizon.

AMC only provided the first two episodes for review, so the famous cover-illustration hook for this pre-Pulitzer outing by the author of “Empire Falls” — which involves the department budget, tenure and a threat against the on-campus geese — is down the road.

Can one tell if this is going to be worth the viewer’s time from the first two installments? There’s a bit of “Office” style promise in the predictable gender politics, chosen discipline hierarchy and sexual history nature of the department infighting, somewhat less in the students who aren’t likely to forget Hank labeled them “mediocrities” at “this middling college” in a “forgotten town.” Or that he dismissed that smug rich kid who compared his blundering style to Chaucer and dashed his expectations of winning a Pulitzer for literature.

“I’ll bet a KIDNEY that you don’t!”

Stand-up and sit-com trained Oedenkirk knows his way around a putdown or a punch line, and is naturally hangdog, so embodying the thesis that “being an adult is around 80% misery” isn’t a stretch. His interior monologues are biting and occasionally even amusing. The “30 years” since he’s seen his fellow-author pal beard makes him look entirely too old for this to be “midlife crisis” terrain — “stress” pains that he’s sure are kidney stones, making him size-up his radiologist as a “bottom half of his class” thinker. The character is more a grab bag of stereotypes — burnt-out, Volvo-driving academic wondering where it all went wrong.

But the first episode is good, and the second makes this show’s inherent limitations obvious. While they spent a bit of money on Enos and Nuñez, and gave the reliably funny Diedrich Bader the role of a brother in midlife crisis colleague, not finding someone of name and Big Author energy to play the old pal/successful writer underscores how this cast lowers expectations, and lowers the bar on laughs and wit.

Here is a list of who they surrounded BO with for the far more colorful crooked-lawyer-for-lowlifes dramedy “Better Call Saul” — the character actor’s character actor, Giancarlo Esposito, Ed Begley, Jr., Michael McKean, Kerry Condon, veteran heavies Jonathan Banks, Mark Margolis, Steven Bauer and Dennis Boutsikaris, with Clea DuVall and Carol Freaking Burnett.

That’s not necessarily a fair comparison, but suffice it to say, “Hank” isn’t so “Lucky.”

Oedenkirk’s always going to give you fair value. But there’s very little here that either suggests “bingeworthy” “destination TV,” or even the chance it might work its way towards that. “Lucky Hank” feels limited, over-familiar and played, as if, like its title character, the best of life might not be in the rest of life. Not the one that unfolds here.

Rating: alcohol abuse, profanity

Cast: Bob Oedenkirk, Mireille Enos, Suzanne Cryer, Oscar Nuñez, Cedric Yarbrough, Jackson Kelly, Shannon DeVido and Diedrich Bader.

Credits: Created by Paul Lieberstein and Aaron Zelman, based on a novel by Richard Russo. An AMC+ release.

Running time: 8 episodes @48 minutes each.


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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