Judged on three decades of on-screen performance, Bob Odenkirk can do no wrong. Time and again, the star of Better Call Saul, Nobody, and a whole lot of extremely funny sketches has proven himself to be one of Hollywood’s most versatile and likeable performers. Comedy, drama, beating a bunch of Russian mobsters half to death on a bus; he’s compelling no matter what. But even with all that up his sleeve, is he the one to revive the campus drama?
Hank, aka William Henry Deveraux Jr (Odenkirk), is Chair of the English Department at Railton College in Pennsylvania. This is not a great centre of learning: we know this because, when Hank’s daydreaming is interrupted by a student wanting actual feedback on his awful short story, he rapidly spirals into a rant pointing out that his students must be life’s losers because they’ve ended up here. And how does he know this?’“Because I too am here! At Railton college, mediocrity’s capital!’
It seems like the stage is set for yet another take on the endless campus wars, with bitter, tell-it-like-it-is teachers versus sensitive snowflake students. But it turns out the teachers are pretty much just as useless, focused equally on their own personal fiefdoms and their loathing of each other.
For a moment it seems their shared dislike of Hank and the fallout from his ‘mediocrity’ rant might disrupt his stagnant situation. The twist is that this is a man whose idea of a perfect life is a blank wall. Being taken down by politics just might be a way out of the trap his life has become.
Adapted from Richard Russo’s comedic novel Straight Man by Aaron Zelman (Silicon Valley) and Paul Lieberstein (The Office), this is happy to go for laughs when they’re available. At one stage Hank gets hit – and hooked – in the nose by a notebook wielded by fellow faculty member Grace DuBois (Suzanne Cryer).
‘Let go of the notebook,’ he yells.
‘But it has original work in it,’ she says.
‘Not if it’s yours,’ he snaps back.
The comedy helps freshen up what occasionally threatens to become just another look at an older man who feels like life has passed him by. Hank wrote one semi-successful novel three decades ago and hasn’t completed anything since; his father, the nationally significant literary critic William Henry Deveraux Snr, hasn’t spoken to him in 15 years.
Hank Snr is also heading into retirement and, we later discover, has just had his third wife walk out on him. Storm clouds are clearly looming, even if Hank Jr doesn’t want to know.
The first two episodes (of eight) shuffle a lot of cards. The initial focus on Hank’s plight widens out, with both teachers and students getting their own subplots while Hank deals with the on-campus arrival of real-life author and one-time literary comrade George Saunders (played here by Brian Huskey).
The campus wars material recedes but doesn’t quite vanish as Hank’s struggle with his lack of progress (and doubts that he ever really went anywhere in the first place) shift to the fore. As for his high school administrator wife (Mireille Enos), who seemed to be harbouring her own doubts in week one, presumably that’s another plot point yet to fully play out.
With so much going on, it’s difficult to figure out exactly where all this is heading, especially as Hank is set up as a man fully aware that he doesn’t have all that much to lose. Fortunately he’s played by Odenkirk, an actor who can sell pretty much anything. A character who can go from depressed dad to snarky boss in a heartbeat is a great showcase for his range. If anything, it feels like this series could push him a little harder towards the darker side of the material.
Still, even if this remains content to be a relatively lightweight look at campus life, it’s handled with enough depth to make it worthwhile. Railton is authentically shabby, its staff and students sharply and sensitively drawn. And Odenkirk is a performer who can go just about anywhere: this doesn’t yet feel like a series about a man willing to totally trash his life just to start again.
But if he does decide to burn it all down, there isn’t a better actor for the job.
Lucky Hank is now streaming on Stan, with new episodes each Monday.