AMC+’s Lucky Hank Is an Amusing Throwback with Low Stakes but Good VibesPhoto Courtesy of AMC+ TV Reviews Lucky Hank
One of my good friends writes for TV and movies professionally, and a couple years ago he and his writing partner decided to write a screenplay about a 20-something literary critic in New York City whose reviews are so scathing that he emerges from anonymity to become famous. As they were writing, my friend let me on his biggest challenge: Convincing the audience that anybody actually cared about books anymore. How do you create a world where book criticism moves the cultural needle, even in New York, when the zeitgeist for that kind of thing is decades in the past. Their writing was predictably terrific, but I thought about that original conundrum while watching Lucky Hank, the story of a college professor and one-time author with terminal writer’s block and a nasty case of ennui as he enters late middle age. It’s not an unfamiliar genre; from Lucky Jim (the obvious namesake here) to The Human Stain to Wonderboys to I Am Charlotte Simmons, the campus novel has always thrived, in no small part because many famous writers end up in academia, and, well, you write what you know.
Still, we live in accelerating times, and the question that I couldn’t shake as I settled in for the two episodes provided to critics was, does this feel relevant now? Does the story of an aging author whose main problem in life is that he can’t write anymore even make sense, here in the glitz and wonder of the techno-apocalypse? My initial prejudice was that Lucky Hank would be unimaginably quaint, and to a large extent I was right. There is nothing very immediately pressing here, nothing so urgent that you’re going to text your best friend to sit down and watch, and there are times—as when you’re watching the main character agonize over the taunting white space on his computer screen–that you’ll sigh and wish for a robot to crash through the walls.
But here’s what I forgot: Even in the futuristic year 2023, there’s something to be said for good vibes. In fact, a show can thrive on it. Bob Odenkirk, fresh off Better Call Saul, stars as sad, bearded William Henry “Hank” Devereaux Jr., son of a literary superstar father, one-time novelist, and current chair of the English department at Railton College. He’s a shitty professor to his writing students, his only book isn’t even available at the campus bookstore, and when he bothers to teach at all, he rants about mediocrity—his students’, the university’s, and especially his own. That lands him in hot water, at which point he’s de-chaired by his fellow English faculty, and then, in a lovely stroke of absurdity that works even though see it coming, elected right back to the same chair. His long-suffering wife (the excellent Mireille Enos, of The Killing fame) tolerates his curmudgeon streak, dreads his recurring attempts to write a second novel, and grows just a bit more resentful at how her career as a school administrator takes a back seat to his inability to leave campus.
The first episode delves into the consequences of his “mediocrity” rant, but without getting into the thorny modern turf of cancelation and campus activism; this show keeps things light and comedic, right up to the toothless dean played by Oscar Nunez. (“Maybe explain to them how powerless you are,” Devereaux says to him, when he mentions the board members calling demanding Devereaux’s job. “I wish I could,” the dean responds, “it would make my life a whole lot easier.”) There’s no interest in mining the parts of modern academia that are so titillating and enraging on social media, which is fine; this is a character study, and Odenkirk is sufficiently compelling to carry us along. It does mean, however, that the campus politics as portrayed here come off a little flimsy.
In the second and final episode made available to critics, there’s a bizarre and frankly funny choice to contrast Lucky Hank with, of all people, George Saunders. There’s a sense that the writers tried to think of a famous current novelist who was at least a little literary, and Saunders, most famous for his short stories, was as close as they could get (Jonathan Franzen was apparently not palatable, and David Foster Wallace not alive). Saunders is a giant, his writing is superb, and his book about writing, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is the best of its genre I’ve ever read. Here, though, played by Brian Huskey, he is alternately sagacious and a little passive-aggressive, and portrayed as a long-time fixture of the literary world. The real George Saunders worked for years in jobs ranging from engineer to roofer to slaughterhouse knuckle-puller before his breakthrough, and seems about as different from the character Huskey portrays as possible. It’s a weird plot decision to make, and you wonder why they didn’t just make somebody up.
Despite all this, the show is still fun to watch. Odenkirk has an almost soothing presence, and while I feel like I did with Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad (that there’s something a little off about his acting—a kind of artifice that telegraphs he comes from a comedy rather than theater background, if you’ll permit such snobbery), he’s slightly askew in the right ways here. All of which is to say that Lucky Hank is a show you can hang around with, feel basically mellow, and just enjoy the ride. It’s not superlative, and I’m not sure it’s actually trying to say very much, but as an anachronistic detour onto the university campus as it never truly existed (and certainly doesn’t now), it’s an unreal reality that’s worth the visit. You may never enroll, but don’t miss the tour.
Lucky Hank premieres Sunday, March 19th on AMC (and AMC+)
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here.
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