SXSW TV Review: Lucky Hank

Bob Odenkirk lends his weight to light academic comedy

Bob Odenkirk as Hank in LUCKY HANK (credit: Sergei Bachlakov/AMC)

There's often a confusion that drama has to be epic, overblown, and filled with dire ramifications. Yet there is a singular charm and identifiability in the hapless middle.

Lucky Hank (which premieres on AMC+ on March 19) builds out from Richard Russo's Straight Man, an incisive and gentle satire of campus life in the middling faculty of a middling college in a middling small town, which is where William Henry Deveraux Jr. has found himself the chairman of the English Department - a position he secretly relishes because it gives him something else to complain about.

After the scheming deviousness and proudly embraced amorality of Saul Goodman, with his grand and wicked schemes, Bob Odenkirk has gone for a much smaller and pricklier performance as the titular character. Hank doesn't want to impress people by his achievements, but by his kindly acerbic truth-telling. The underlying question is whether he is passive-aggressively self-destructive, or just has embraced his own mediocrity. His inward slump would be enough to kibosh any forward motion in his career or life, but a painfully accurate dismantling of a student's lackluster paper - the true triggering incident of the pilot - drags more people in to Hank's cold war on (or for, depending on your viewpoint) mere adequacy.

If it's a mellowing for Odenkirk, it's also a change of pace for Peter Farrelly, who directed the first episode as well as executive producing the series. While his brother and long-time creative partner, Bobby, has continued to meld inclusive compassion and bawdy laughs in the recent Champions, Peter has left behind his Dumb & Dumber days for more high-minded fare and yet still divisive material like The Green Book and The Greatest Beer Run Ever.

Lucky Hank is more measured and charming than anything he's done before, and like Russo's book will cause shudders of recognition among anyone who has spent time in academia. This is, after all a tale of entitled students, and most especially of utterly inept departmental politics, where being dean is both the end goal and a hot potato that no one wants to grasp.

What Lucky Hank doesn't try to do is revolutionize the form of the campus dramedy. Anyone who watched The Paper Chase or Community or A Very Peculiar Practice, or even has vague memories of Our Miss Brooks, will recognize the form and dynamics: Hank's constant goading of his only real on-campus friend, the harassed university president (Oscar Nuñez); the small-stakes bickering in the faculty break room; and the strains that his quietly cantankerous nature places on his relationship with his wife (Mireille Enos). The drama, like the comedy, is mild and charming, even if storm clouds are clearly on the horizon with the off-screen retirement of Hank's much more successful father - after all, if there's a senior, there must be a junior.

But where does Hank go now? The whole point of his story thus far is that, due to the softly Kafka-esque nature of academia, inertia is the name of the game. For anything to change will defeat the premise, but in an era of high-stakes television, will audiences warm to the anti-action? If they're prepared to embrace Lucky Hanks warmly sardonic humor and contemporary observations within an established genre, maybe Hank may get lucky after all.

Lucky Hank

TV Premieres, World Premiere

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