Bob Odenkirk pivots effortlessly from his “Better Call Saul” bleakness to the world of small-town college academia in “Lucky Hank,” a pleasant AMC series that chugs along to the beat of its own foibles.
He plays William Henry “Hank” Devereaux Jr., a once-semi-successful novelist who’s now chairing the English Department at underfunded Railton College somewhere in the Pennsylvania rust belt, a place he dubs “mediocrity’s capitol.”
The bearded Hank mixes cynicism, sarcasm and pessimistic humor — “being an adult is 80 percent misery,” he posits — while struggling with midlife crises on several fronts: with his famous father, a philandering Columbia University literature professor who abandoned his family years before and, recently retired, now wants to reconnect; with his squabbling staff, a motley, conniving crew who think Hank should be “de-chaired” from his job ( “Is that an outpatient procedure these days?” Hank wonders); and with his wife, Lily (Mireille Enos), the vice principal at Railton East High School.
Hank and Lily are settled into a comfortable, loving marriage not without its own challenges: she, too, is dealing with work issues and is tempted by the prospect of a prestigious job in New York City but needs to persuade Hank to leave his hometown (and mother) behind — a nearly impossible task.
Their 24-year-old daughter Julie (Olivia Scott Welch), who sees herself as a disappointment to her parents, is married to ne’er-do-well Russell (Daniel Doheny), a modern-day Ralph Kramden who dreams big but doesn’t ever seem to deliver.
Hank’s point-of-view is crystallized by his inner thoughts, relayed via his occasional voiceover. It’s a plot device that, if overused, can misfire — but it works well here and adds a touch of whimsical gravitas.
Each episode of “Lucky Hank,” based on Richard Russo’s 1997 novel “Straight Man,” deftly puzzles together the dramedy’s story arc without losing focus under the sure hands of Paul Lieberstein (“The Office”) and Aaron Zelman (“Damages,” “The Killing” with Enos).
We eventually learn much more about Hank, Lily, Julie (and Russell) and Hank’s backstory, particularly in relation to his daddy issues — which are turned upside-down when he discovers a cache of family letters revealing much more to the saga of Devereaux Sr. — and his insecurities as a latent writer who fears his best was more a product of his father’s fame (his idea of a “nepo baby”) than of his own talent.
None of this would work, of course, without sharp writing, and that is in abundance here (including several episodes written by Russo). Hank fires off a string of one-liners — “an aye for an aye” when his colleagues are deciding his chairman’s fate; describing himself as “a smidge up from neutral” re: his “happy” mood — and, given Odenkirk’s comedic background, it fits Hank like a glove, albeit through a world-weary lens, much as it did in “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.”
Any series (dramatic or comedic) worth its time investment features a stellar supporting cast, and “Lucky Hank” does not disappoint, particularly regarding Hank’s department colleagues, among them Dean Rose (Oscar Nunez); poetry professor Gracie DuBois (Suzanne Cryer); blatant misogynist Paul Rourke (Cedric Yarbrough, “Speechless”); pretentious lit professor Finny (Hague Sutherland); and film professor Emma Wheemer (Shannon DeVido), a self-described “freight train” of insults.
Buckle up for a bumpy, enjoyable ride into the human condition that will take you on a journey that is, at turns, funny, melancholy and insightful — but never boring.