The following recap contains spoilers for the first episode of Lucky Hank, “Pilot” (written by Paul Lieberstein & Aaron Zelman and directed by Peter Farrelly)
The last time we saw Bob Odenkirk in the finale of Better Call Saul, he was saying goodbye to Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) and preparing to spend the rest of his life in a New Mexico prison cell. We wondered how long it would be before we got to see Odenkirk and his brilliant acting chops again, and it turns out the answer was just about seven months. In Odenkirk’s new series, Lucky Hank, the show (unintentionally) tries to answer the question, “is there an upper-middle-class, suburban, career-secure version of a life that could actually be worse than the one awaiting Saul Goodman in prison?”
Lucky Hank, which premiered Sunday night on AMC, is the serialized version of the book Straight Man by Richard Russo which is a satirical look at one man’s descent through the hell of academia set against a backdrop of a mid-sized Pennsylvania blue-collar town, a hopeless liberal arts college, and friends, family, and co-workers who all just might be slightly more unhinged than he is.
At least through the pilot, Odenkirk seems to be a sublime choice to play William Henry Devereaux, Jr., a never-wanted-it Department Chair of the English Department at Railton College. Beyond his seemingly endless supply of oxford shirts, tweed sportscoats, and plastic-rimmed glasses, Odenkirk plays Professor Devereaux with the right balance of confidence, condescension, and self-awareness that his life lacks much meaning, but without enough motivation to do anything about it.
“Haven’t we all figured out what the advertising industry learned ages ago? That after age 49 we aren’t changing our minds about anything?” It’s not just what Devereaux thinks about the constant bickering between the other eclectic mix of professors in his department. It’s his complete outlook on life, his job, and—perhaps most of all—his students.
Devereaux’s choices have been made, his career path set, and now that he has tenure and the role of Department Chair, he can never be fired. There is nothing new under the sun, even though every generation of entitled college students that comes through his creative writing class thinks that they are God’s gift to the written word.
It’s with this lens that we see Devereaux finally snap. When a student (the aptly named Barto Williams-Stevens, played by Jackson Kelly) pushes Professor Devereaux a little too hard for feedback on his latest short story in the middle of their peer-review seminar, Devereaux snaps. In what were assuredly words that were bubbling up in his bowels for years, Devereaux goes on a rant that Railton is “mediocrity’s capital,” and that the main piece of evidence of why none of them (including Devereaux himself) will ever amount to anything more than they are right now is they “are here.”
He believes that even if there are some deeply-hidden writing talents that are lurking in the room, it doesn’t matter because they will “never surface. I am not a good enough writer or writing teacher!”
A student, of course, is recording all of this which sets in motion a series of comical, miserable, and little-too-on-the-nose events that begin to shake the delicate balance he has built for himself. The first cracks in those plans comes when his father, William Henry Devereaux Sr., a world-wide respected writer and critic, decides to retire after more than 40 years. The two haven’t spoken in over a decade so Devereaux Jr. finds out through a feature in the New York Times. One of his father’s quotes in the story is that he is retiring because he is “eager to spend more time with his family.” Whether that is his third family, fourth family, or a family yet to come, Devereaux Jr. does not know, but it’s clear that our titular character has been living in the shadow of more than just a name for quite some time.
His outburst against his student makes waves in the school paper and among his peers, which forces a no-confidence vote for Devereaux as department chair. He is promptly ousted which generates calls and visits from Dean Rose (played by Oscar Nunez), the president, the board, and, lastly, his wife Lily (Mireille Enos). Lily Devereaux is a motivated, personable, hands-on-approach vice principal at the local high school who seems to want to run as far away from misery as possible, but William keeps pulling her back in.
She uses the loss of the department chair role as an opportunity to reach out to a school in New York that wanted her for a new position, only to have William question the whole thing because it would be close to his estranged father, far away from their needy daughter and her partner, but mostly because it would further disrupt the ecosystem William has developed that both allows and fosters mediocrity.
It doesn’t take long for William to confess his personal philosophy to Lily when he proclaims that “being an adult is 80% misery. We are a bit obsessed with happiness, but the misery industry is huge.” But we as viewers get the impression that William thrives on that life; it drives him deeper into a state of self-fulfilling prophecy—the more miserable he becomes, the more human he will feel.
The most charming parts of the first episode of Lucky Hank are the department meetings where we get to meet and interact with his peers. Led by Suzanne (Grace DuBois) and Paul (Cedric Yarbrough), they are a misfit cast of has-beens and never-weres who bicker over the cultural validity of Jodie Foster’s role in The Accused. Through a series of mishaps and miscast votes, the end of the episode shows Devereaux being voted department chair again, which undoubtedly makes him more miserable. Which makes him happier. And on and on it goes.
Through one episode, it’s difficult to explain exactly what the show is about. Can there even be an antagonist when Devereaux is his own protagonist and antagonist all in one tweed-covered package? We see Devereaux breaking sad in this episode and finally speaking some truth into his situation when Barto challenges him, but does he possess the internal fortitude or desire to do anything to change his situation?
Is there some kind of redemptive arc or finding-oneself story coming? I distinctly don’t get that impression.
Does William want to reconcile with his father? Does he want to champion his wife into better opportunities? Does he want to have something like 30% misery as Lily does or stick around 80%? It’s unclear that William Devereaux wants to be anything but critical. But that’s what he knows, and that’s what is comfortable.
The article William reads about his famous father includes this line when describing William the elder:
“Critics, more than authors, present the truest reflection of the zeitgeist.”
Authors create, you see. They imagine. They inspire. They produce.
Critics, on the other hand, poke holes. They over-examine. They speak harshly of the work of others.
Perhaps William Henry Devereaux, Jr. is a lot more like his father than he would like to admit.