‘Lucky Hank’ review: Bob Odenkirk’s new AMC series is a wild drama

The “Better Call Saul” star makes a welcome return to AMC as a jaded college professor/almost forgotten nepo baby writer in a series that still has its core.

Less than a year after “Better Call Saul” ended its incredibly excellent six-season run (somehow matching the towering precedent set by “Breaking Bad”), Bob Odenkirk is returning to AMC. That bodes well for the network, which has steadily built a fan base around the two-time Emmy winner thanks to those back-to-back hits (and as cable clients continue to shrink, subscribers will either have to stay out or sign up for AMC+. ). Wherever he pops up, Odenkirk should never be taken for granted on TV, even if his new series isn’t quite sure what it is yet.

Just two episodes in, it’s hard to tell if “Lucky Hank” could use a little more of “Saul’s” eagerness to look into the darkness, or if it would be better off dialing up its softer side. Co-showrunners Aaron Zelman and Paul Lieberstein’s everything-and-the-sink approach leaves enough room for things to turn around as the season progresses, but it also raises too many questions about an amorphous story that can be described in any number of ways: Is this a dark comedy? Light drama? Midlife crisis celebration or inspiring Everyman saga? Is it mainly about Odenkirk’s frustrated teacher/author, or will it be an ensemble piece (due to its extensive cast) — or even a two-hander with Mireille Enos (as hinted at by the premiere’s ending)?

At least it’s easy to trust our talented leader. Odenkirk plays Hank Devereaux, a middle-aged professor at a secondary college in Pennsylvania. Its mandate 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 of struggling to see the potential in his students (and himself), Hank spends most of his class thinking about his lunch order while forcing his underclassmen to critique each other.

Then one day a particularly poor writing student with a particularly good opinion of himself takes on a challenge. He wants feedback from his professor, not his peers, and when Hank finally gets him to offer something, there’s nothing constructive in his criticism—just a vitriolic vent about the aspiring novelist, his uninspiring classmates, and the sleazy school in general. Soon, Hank’s rant goes viral, and everyone from the original target to the department’s teachers are furious at being called endlessly mediocre.

Will Hank be deleted? Should he have it? Do you want to be him? The premiere dances around these questions as Hank calms down and considers his options after the breakout. On the one hand, he is clearly frustrated with his current position. But starting over is easier said than done, especially if it means risking your comfortable status and exposing yourself as an artist. Adapted from Richard Russo’s novel “Straight Man,” “Lucky Hank” doesn’t push his character too far in either direction — not yet, anyway. Hank lets the kid in class, but is more considerate in subsequent encounters. He’s rude to his colleagues, but he’s not a permanent asshole that everyone hates.

Odenkirk finds an authentic middle ground in Hank’s demeanor that allows him to dial some of the arguments into a recognizable comedic pattern while comfortably slipping into rage or concern as needed. It threads a believable needle and leaves room for “Lucky Hank” to veer toward the sensibilities deemed best as the story progresses. But given that the actor’s range and skill have long been proven, these early entries make you want to see him dig deeper.

Mireille Enos as Lily, Chris Diamantopoulos as Tom, and Jennifer Spence as Ashley in Lucky Hank (Season 1, Episode 4).  Photo: Sergey Bachlakov/AMC

“Lucky Hank”

Sergey Bachlakov / AMC

The same goes for its star cast. Enos, who got her own AMC after 44 episodes of “The Killing,” plays Lily, the vice principal of the local high school and Hank’s equal wife. She knows how to handle her husband’s erratic agitation, just as she knows how best to deal with unruly high school students who test their teachers’ patience. The premiere hinted at a bigger arc for Lily, but all of that disappears in the second episode, so it’s hard to tell how much use the edgy actor will have. Suzanne Cryer and Cedric Yarbrough make productive first impressions as Hank’s two colleagues in the English department, and it’s always a pleasure to see Diedrich Bader, one of the stars on screen and Who, pops up as Hank’s perpetual best friend. But with two more series regulars, some returning players, and the much-anticipated guest stars (including Chris Diamantopoulos!), “Lucky Hank” explodes. Not everyone can last—not in an eight-episode season of 45-minute segments—and the successful execution of so many moving parts has yet to be proven.

Interrupting the speech would be a good place to start, as Hank’s random internal monologues rarely add anything and feel like they’re cutting into an easily recognizable story. It’s much more fascinating to watch Hank get involved in the aggravation, as he does toward the end of episode two, rather than simply unleashing his grumpy old self. Given’s Hank is actually Hank Jr., the son of a prominent publisher who is much less respected as a father, seeing the grown-up nepo baby dispel his long-standing concerns about whether he’s getting good reviews, his original book deal, and where The college you’re thinking about leaving makes for serious and empathetic character study (which also happens to be somewhat topical). There’s no need to make Hank an anti-hero when his vulnerability is so raw and his situation so grounded.

Plus, Odenkirk has already done the anti-hero thing. Let’s see how he plays the hero – Hank, for AMC and the audience.

grade: B-

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

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