‘Lucky Hank’ Review: Bob Odenkirk Hits a Mid-Life Crisis in AMC’s Light-Cringe Academia Drama

12 March 2023

Less than a year after “Better Call Saul” wrapped its inconceivably excellent six-season run (somehow matching the towering precedent set by “Breaking Bad”), Bob Odenkirk is back on AMC. That’s good for the network, which has steadily built a fan base around the two-time Emmy winner via those back-to-back hits (and, as cable clients continue to shrink, needs those subscribers to either stick around or sign up for AMC+). No matter where he pops up, seeing Odenkirk on TV should never be taken for granted, even if his new series isn’t quite sure what it is yet.

Through only two episodes, it’s hard to tell if “Lucky Hank” could use a bit more of “Saul’s” eagerness to gaze into the darkness, or if it’d be better off dialing up its softer side. The “everything and the kitchen sink” approach taken by co-showrunners Aaron Zelman and Paul Lieberstein leaves enough room to pivot toward what’s working as the season goes on, but also too many questions about an amorphous story that could be described any which way: Is it a dark comedy? A light drama? A mid-life crisis cringe-fest, or an inspirational everyman saga? Is it mainly about Odenkirk’s frustrated teacher/author, or will it become an ensemble piece (given its expansive cast) — or even a two-hander with Mireille Enos (which is implied by the premiere’s ending)?

At least it’s easy to trust in our talented lead. Odenkirk plays Hank Devereaux, a middle-aged professor at a middle-tier college in Pennsylvania. His tenure serves as a double-edged sword, offering security and autonomy while isolating the aging author from any necessary advice or motivation. After too many days struggling to see the potential in his students (and himself), Hank spends most classes thinking about his lunch order while forcing his undergrads to critique each other.

Then, one day, a particularly poor writing pupil with a particularly high opinion of himself doles out a challenge. He wants feedback from his professor, not his peers, and when Hank is finally badgered into offering some, there’s nothing constructive in his criticism — just vitriolic venting about the aspiring novelist, his uninspiring classmates, and the humdrum school at large. Soon, Hank’s rant goes viral, and everyone from the original target to the department faculty are irate over being dubbed terminally mediocre.

Will Hank be canceled? Should he be? Does he want to be? The premiere dances around these questions, as Hank calms down and considers his options post-outburst. On the one hand, he’s clearly frustrated with his current standing. But starting over is easier said than done, especially when it means risking your comfortable status and putting yourself out there as an artist. “Lucky Hank,” adapted from Richard Russo’s novel “Straight Man,” doesn’t push its character too hard in either direction — not yet, anyway. Hank let the kid have it in class, but he’s more considerate during subsequent encounters. He’s cheeky with his colleagues, but he’s not a constant asshole who everyone hates.

Odenkirk finds a credible middle-ground in Hank’s demeanor that allows him to dial up some discussions into recognizable comedic patter, while sliding comfortably into outright anger or concern as called for. He’s threading a believable needle, allowing room for “Lucky Hank” to pivot into whatever sensibility it deems best as the story progresses. But given the actor’s range and dexterity were proven long ago, these early entries leave you eager to see him dig in more fully.

“Lucky Hank”

Sergei Bachlakov / AMC

The same goes for his starry supporting cast. Enos, who earned her own AMC following after 44 episodes of “The Killing,” plays Lily, a vice principal at the local high school and Hank’s level-headed wife. She knows how to deal with her husband’s erratic agitation, just as she knows how to best handle the unruly high schoolers testing their teachers’ patience. The premiere hints at a larger arc for Lily, but it all but disappears in the second episode, making it hard to tell how much the sharp actor will be utilized. Suzanne Cryer and Cedric Yarbrough make productive first impressions as two colleagues in Hank’s English department, and it’s always a treat to see Diedrich Bader, an all-star onscreen and off, pop up as Hank’s perennially around best friend. But with two more series regulars, a handful of recurring players, and guest stars still to come (including Chris Diamantopoulos!), “Lucky Hank” is bursting at the seams. Not everyone can stick around — not in an eight-episode season made up of 45-minute chunks — and its successful implementation of so many moving parts has yet to be proven.

Cutting the voiceover would be a good place to start, since Hank’s random inner monologues rarely add anything and feel shoehorned in to an easily discernible story. It’s also far more compelling to watch Hank engage with his aggravations, as he does near the end of the second episode, rather than simply unleash his grumpy old man. Given’s Hank is actually Hank Jr., son of a renowned publisher who’s far less respected as a father, seeing the grown nepo baby address long-lingering concerns about whether he earned his good reviews, his original book deal, and his place at the very college he’s thinking of leaving makes for an earnest and empathetic character study (that just so happens to be somewhat topical, too). There’s no need to twist Hank into an antihero when his vulnerabilities are this raw and his situation this grounded.

Plus, Odenkirk already did the antihero thing. Let’s see him play the hero — for Hank, for AMC, and for his audience at large.

Grade: B-

“Lucky Hank” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Festival. The wide release date is Sunday, March 19 at 9 p.m. ET on AMC. New episodes will be available weekly.

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