TV Review – Lucky Hank Season One

Lucky Hank Season One (AMC)
Written by Paul Lieberstein, Aaron Zelman, Adam Barr, Emma Barrie, Jean Kyoung Frazier, Jasmine Pierce, and Taylor Brogan
Directed by Peter Farrelly, Dan Attias, Jude Weng, and Nicole Holofcener

I went into Lucky Hank with moderately high expectations. I have been a big fan of Bob Odenkirk for decades and loved his time as Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul. I picked up the novel that the show is based on, Straight Man by Richard Russo, and it has been one of my favorite reads of the year so far. However, when I reached the season finale of Lucky Hank, I had one feeling prominent at the front of my mind: relief that it was over and I was never watching any more of this show. That doesn’t mean the show is horrible, but it does not fit my sensibilities. Instead, we got a single-camera dramedy sitcom hybrid with Lucky Hank, complete with spots where we are intended to laugh with the laugh track absent. 

Hank Devereaux, Jr. (Odenkirk) is the English department chair at underfunded Railton University in Pennsylvania. His professor-father left the family decades earlier and re-established his life in New York City. Hank went from townie to academic but never feels satisfied or happy with anything he does. His wife, Lily (Mireille Enos), is a public high school vice principal finding herself becoming burnt out, facing year after year of struggles with the system. An opportunity to become the principal of a prestigious NYC private school comes across her table, and she seriously considers it. Their daughter Julie (Olivia Scott Welch) is married but has relationship & financial problems, both intertwined, of course. There’s also a colorful cast of professors in the English department with their own quirks & hang-ups.

This is not Better Call Saul. Other than Odenkirk, it’s a whole new group of people involved based on source material with a very different tone than that previous series. My personal tastes cause me to enjoy things with more dire stakes or stories that often end on an ambiguous or downbeat note. That is not Lucky Hank. The show softens its potential edges a little too much. For example, there’s an episode where tension builds between Hank & Lily over her job prospects and that someone kissed her while she was visiting NYC. I think for ⅔ of the episode, the stakes are solid, and they escalate. But then the third act comes, and all of that gets deflated. The writers choose not to go down a soap-operatic or more dramatic avenue and ground the show in a more real-life scenario. I can appreciate that, and it is a refreshing change of pace…yet, I got bored with the show because of these things.

The show’s sense of humor is not what I find funny. It’s a very Millennial type of silliness with quirky indie sensibilities, and I don’t find that anywhere close to being funny. A handful of episodes got a small chuckle out of me, but for the most part, I sat there hoping the 40-ish minutes would go by quicker. Even my wife, who enjoys shows of this kind more than I do, did not really care about these characters and what was happening to them. 

College campuses are not an interesting setting for a television show, at least in my opinion. The only university-based show I can remember enjoying was the first season of Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens, but the stakes of that show were insane. The problems in Hank’s life feel utterly alien to the average struggle of most Americans. He has a professorship at a mid-tier college, but despite budget cuts, it doesn’t seem like he’s in danger of losing his job. It’s more that he feels bad about picking people to fire to make up for budget cuts. That sucks, but I don’t feel the show ever developed any of these professors enough so that I felt invested in who stayed or went. Nothing is ever allowed to become too serious, but the comedy refrains from being biting or sharp.

The show tries to present itself as an introspective character study with humor, that was the novel. However, by the second episode, I felt a perspective shift, and it suddenly felt more like a workplace comedy. I assume that’s necessary when trying to turn a book into an ongoing series, but it hurts this show. The novel had a way of rooting itself in our main character; it was told from the point of view of Hank, so we only saw & knew what he did. It played a little with the unreliable narrator trope, and I found it to be an amusing book. Here, the perspective shifts from Hank to Gracie (Suzanne Cryer), a poetry professor or Bartow (Jackson Kelly), a writing student who despises Hank. These are potentially interesting paths to explore in this expanded context, but they have yet to get an episode unto themselves. It’s always Hank, but then brief side plots with other characters that develop their plotlines slightly. Lily is the only other character whose story relates back to Hank’s. This is an entirely new addition, as, in the novel, she is out of town caring for her ailing father. It’s not terrible, but like most things in this show, I simply don’t care.

Ultimately, Lucky Hank wants to avoid going tremendously deep with its ensemble cast and uses them primarily for comic relief. Yet, the humor just doesn’t connect with me. It’s a show that feels aimless and unsure of what it wants to be or how it wants the audience to receive it. As far as I’m concerned, the season finale feels like a series finale. The main arc is resolved, and I think there is no reason to keep the story past this point. The show hasn’t been renewed for a second season yet, and I won’t be disappointed if AMC chooses to end it here.

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