When TV goes to college, it usually focuses on the students, with their youth, clammy skin, and zest for life that isn’t tempered by time, experience, or perspective. These shows offer a shot of nostalgic fantasy for older viewers and a flattering mirror for younger ones. They are sexy by nature.
Stories that focus on teachers and administrators are a different breed. (The 2021 Netflix series “The Chair,” with Sandra Oh, was a rare recent example, and it died after one season.) While often just as childish as their more difficult students, these characters can carry the added burden of moral exhaustion, bodies and/or minds, spouses or ex-spouses, and children; his the days are bogged down in bureaucratic folders, intra- and inter-departmental competition amid shrinking budgets and the pressure of simply holding down a job. Not so sexy!
Even so, literary works worth shelf value have been placed in that medium. Many writers have not only been to, but worked in, college, and age tends to play better on the page than on an 80-inch 4-K flat screen.
One such book, Richard Russo’s 1998 institutional comic novel “Straight Man,” set at a tertiary college in a struggling western Pennsylvania town, has been made into the “Lucky Hank” series, set to premiere Sunday on AMC.
Bob Odenkirk stars as William Henry Devereaux Jr., a writing professor and chair of the English department at Railton College. The author, years before, of a well-reviewed but unsuccessful novel, is the estranged son of a literary critic so esteemed that his withdrawal is front-page news. He’s married to Lily (Mireille Enos), reason enough to call Hank lucky, a high school administrator whose patience often seems to be running thin; they have a married daughter, Julie (Olivia Scott Welch), who is always in need of money. Hank also has trouble urinating and is convinced, despite his doctor, that he has a kidney stone because his father had one, which, aside from a name, may be all he inherited from him.
Creators Paul Lieberstein and Aaron Zelman, who co-wrote the two episodes available to review (both directed by Peter Farrelly), have turned up the pressure on Hank. In the novel, which is less a story of midlife crisis than midlife stasis, he is mostly amused or bewildered. Here he is more dyspeptic, cynical, dissatisfied, insecure, panic-prone, and driven by insecurities. He is downright miserable. (Hank to Lily: “Who isn’t miserable? Being an adult is 80% miserable.” Lily: “I think you’re 80. The rest of us are in our 30s or 40s.”) He wrote a second novel, the lack of value also assigned to the character of Jay Duplass in “The Chair”, is a much bigger problem in the series. While the novel-Hank has come to terms with the possibility that he is just a writer of a book, the series-Hank is haunted by it.
All of these qualities soon lead to an outburst in the class, sparked by a particularly demanding student, the self-admiring Bartow (Jackson Kelly), who is pretty sure his work is beyond criticism. Demanding a stronger reaction from Hank, he gets it.
“The fact that you are here means that you did not try very hard in high school or for some reason showed very little promise. And even if your presence at this middling college in this dreary forgotten town was some freak anomaly and you have the promise of genius, I bet you don’t, it will never surface. I’m not good enough as a writer or writing teacher to get it out of you. But how do I know that? Because I’m here too. At Railton College, the capital of mediocrity.
Having felt demeaned by Hank, whose rant ends up published in the campus newspaper to the general chagrin, Bartow, representing a certain kind of authoritative sensibility, will not be content to accept his apology, but will insist that it be published in the campus newspaper as well. . . He is, apparently, a nemesis in the making.
Surrounding Hank are characters as distinctly individual and colorful and as antagonistic as the cast of any workplace sitcom. In the English department are Paul (Cedric Yarbrough), who is at war with Gracie (Suzanne Cryer); Teddy (Arthur Keng) and June (Alvina August), who are married; Finny (Haig Sutherland), pretentious; Billie (Nancy Robertson), drunk; and Emma (Shannon DeVido), who is, if anything, more sardonic than Hank. Above them is Jacob (Oscar Nuñez), the dean, who tries hard to be accommodating but also threatens budget cuts that make the professors feel his jobs might be in jeopardy. (Hank, who sees these threats as seasonal and empty, is more optimistic about it.) Diedrich Bader plays Tony, Hank’s friend and racquetball partner, who also works at the university.
With only two episodes available to review, it’s hard to tell how much of “Straight Man” will make it to “Lucky Hank.” (The close-up, as Hank gazes out at the university’s duck pond, suggests that at least one major incident from the book will be repeated in the series.) more like a strict translation of Russo’s novel than the basis for a workplace that could meander down any path and go on for years, while the book unfolds over a week.
In fact, the first two episodes contain countless original scenes and plotlines, most notably a visit to campus by George Saunders, a true auteur played here by actor Brian Huskey, who Hank started out with but has far outgrown. And while they have imported Russo’s characters, with some modifications, Lieberstein and Zelman have not used much, if any, of his dialogue and have written their own jokes for Hank, some of them better than the ones in the book.
Odenkirk, who started out as a comedian, is a good choice for a character whose main mode of conversation and way of dealing with the world is dry joke. (These tend to be ignored or escalate a situation, no one ever laughs.) Once again a more or less charming anti-hero – his Saul Goodman was all that kept me watching Breaking Bad, which may or may not become more of a hero. that he anti over time, exercises a kind of authority even as he avoids responsibility.
A soulful presence wherever she appears—”The Killing” is where many of us would have known her—Enos is so sympathetic that if there’s anything off about the first few episodes, it’s that you can’t see how Lily and Hank have stayed married. One greets a scene in which they walk hand in hand with relief and hopes for more of that, not that dark comedies are dedicated to fulfilling those hopes.
There’s something about the series that feels both quaint and timely, given current debates about the value of college and the commercialization of an English degree. Yet people still go to college or work at one and write books or want to. And while “Straight Man” was written in a world before media was social and when cancellation was a word applied only to TV shows and restaurant reservations, its social dynamics and cultural concerns are still very much alive. “Lucky Hank” intensifies them to entertaining effect.
When: 9:00 p.m. on Sundays
Classified: TV-14 (may not be suitable for children under 14)