Review: ‘Lucky Hank’ sees Bob Odenkirk embrace an unmissable midlife crisis
With key supporting roles in both The Post and Little Women, alongside that career-defining performance as Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad and prequel Better Call Saul, Bob Odenkirk is becoming an unsung hero in every medium, a trend which shows no signs of slowing down in Lucky Hank.
Adapted by showrunners Aaron Zelman and Paul Lieberstein, from Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man, Lucky Hank finds Odenkirk getting under the skin of Professor William Henry Devereaux Jr – chairman of English at Railton College. A tenured position which is immediately put under threat in the opening episode, when he suffers some sort of meltdown in front of assembled students.
Sparked off by Berstow Williams-Stevens (Jackson Kelly), an opinionated and entitled English major, Hank meters out some harsh analysis, which segues into some professional character assassination aimed squarely at the institute; behavior which sparks unrest and sends ripples of recrimination throughout the campus.
In many ways, this opening salvo feels conventional, as it lays down concise character introductions, quickly establishing obstacles to be overcome, as well as allowing Odenkirk space to explore this low-key character study. From the academic staff, immediate threats loom large in the shape of Gracie DuBois (Suzanne Cryer), who seeks to hijack Hank’s high office, while obstinate undergraduate Berstow demands his head and an immediate apology in print for daring to doubt his ability.
However, unlikely allies in Hank’s corner include Dean Rose, played with effortless understatement by Oscar Nunez, as well as fellow staff member Emma Wheemer – portrayed with scene stealing panache by Shannon DeVido. That gives the campus-based comedy drama a real narrative pulse from the outset, which allows room for some killer one-liners alongside genuine character moments.
For fans of Dan Harmon’s Community this will also feel like a real homecoming, as the dynamic between faculty – especially their interpersonal moments – are laced with a caustic undercurrent which adds an extra edge. Standouts in these verbal standoffs include Paul Rourke (Cedric Yarbrough) and Grace DuBois, who take their petty rivalries to some darkly comic domains.
Elsewhere, influences from Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys can also be felt in the characterization of Hank himself, as personal and professional agendas overlap. Although the English professor in this series might not hanker after weed and write in a pink dressing gown like Grady Tripp, he does suffer from that eponymous second novel syndrome.
With an overachieving father figure, who was perpetually consumed by work at the detriment of any relationship with his son, Hank finds it hard to connect with people. His wife Lily (Mirelle Enos) has always suppressed any ambitions of her own, in order that he can achieve on all fronts, presenting an emotional balancing act which comes under increasing scrutiny as this series continues.
Other touchstones in the cinematic firmament, which an older audience might recognize, would include The World According to Garp, a John Irving novel directed for the screen by George Roy Hill and starring both Robin Williams alongside Glenn Close. On a side note, it also featured John Lithgow in a scene0stealing performance, which only adds to the charm as a whole.
However, where the Irving opus spanned decades, Lucky Hank feels much more condensed despite the extended screen time. Surprising, as what it does retain from both Garp and Wonder Boys is that air of academia, which inherently informs everything else. There are jokes which are aimed squarely at the intentionally over-educated, while any sense of normality supersedes that sense of superiority, as many of the professors become childish as and when their reputations are threatened.
All those complementary elements aside, this new series feels like yet another string to the Odenkirk bow. Some audiences might reprimand it for pedestrian pacing or change channels because everything is not instantly in place. However, Lucky Hank may yet turn out to be a show that rewards the persistent audience member, seeking pleasure from considered pacing and bitingly understated sarcasm.
Irrespective of the reasons people watch, there is no denying that Lucky Hank is worth the investment, above and beyond seeing Odenkirk back on the small screen. The fact that it also brings together a sparkling ensemble cast, who aid and abet our latter-day Saul Goodman as he carves another finely honed creation into the rock face, cannot be overstated either.
Needless to say, Lucky Hank is not only essential viewing for fans, but may yet convince any naysayers that this actor is capable of anything on screen.
With Bob Odenkirk on curmudgeonly form and academic hijinks in the offing, 'Lucky Hank' proves to be precisely-paced pleasure from start to finish. Miss it at your peril.