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‘Lucky Hank’ Review: Better Call Solecism

William Henry (Hank) Devereaux Jr., played by Bob Odenkirk, is a talker. But that’s redundant. Talkers are what Odenkirk does, whether he is playing a huckster on “Mr. Show,” a sleazy agent on “The Larry Sanders Show,” a sad sack on “I Think You Should Leave” or, memorably, the motor-mouthed Saul Goodman on “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.”

He could probably also play a stone-faced cipher who speaks only with his eyes, but that would be like Rafael Nadal switching to pickleball. He’d still be better at it than most of us, but why waste a gift?

This is not to say, however, that Odenkirk is merely repeating himself with “Lucky Hank,” which begins Sunday on AMC. In this academic satire, whose wryly funny first two episodes were screened for critics, the main person his character is trying to deceive is himself.

Technically an author, with one decades-old novel on the remainder pile, Hank is languishing as a writing teacher and English department chair at the middling, underfunded (yet somehow postcard-pretty) Railton College in deepest Pennsylvania. The one place he prefers not to speak is in his classroom, to his diffident students.

But he is about to talk himself into trouble. Bartow (Jackson Kelly), a student with more confidence than talent, demands more detailed feedback on his most recent short story, which involves necrophilia and some creative interpretations of verb tense. Hank delivers his critique with both barrels: Bartow, he says, has no talent, no untapped promise — the proof is that Bartow, like his classmates and like Hank himself, is “at this middling college in this sad, forgotten town.”

This virtuosic outburst lands Hank on the bad side of his dean (Oscar Nuñez), his colleagues and Bartow’s wealthy parents. But that appears to be a side he’s accustomed to. Impolite candor is a pattern with him, and his dark sarcasm has become the artistic expression of his self-loathing.

What’s to loathe? He’s stewing in unresolved issues with his father, a renowned literary critic who hasn’t called him in 15 years. His department may have its budget cut. His urinary tract is being uncooperative. And then there’s the matter of his second novel, currently a blank page taunting him from his laptop screen.

Mediocrity is not popular as a subject on TV, even if it is common as an outcome. The medium is not exactly allergic to stories about the disappointments of middle-aged white guys, but it prefers to have them address these crises through meth dealing or mafia hits. “Lucky Hank” prefers to keep its crimes social and its violence literary. (There is a slapstick set-piece in which Hank’s nose is mutilated by a spiral notebook.)

The showrunners, Paul Lieberstein (“The Office”) and Aaron Zelman (“Silicon Valley”), adapted “Lucky Hank” from Richard Russo’s 1997 novel “Straight Man.” They’ve altered the story line, dialed back the internal monologue and built up Hank’s wife, Lily (Mireille Enos), whose conflict-resolution skill as a high school principal seems to be informed by her second job managing Hank’s moods. Still, in the early going, she is mostly a bemused cipher.

The series attempts to expand female characters from the novel like Hank’s wife, played by Mireille Enos, center, and daughter, played by Olivia Scott Welch.Credit…Sergei Bachlakov/AMC

Unlike the 2021 Netflix series “The Chair,” “Lucky Hank” does not strain to be topical about the campus culture wars. (Although the occasional use of a smartphone sets us in the present, it often feels like a Clinton-era period piece.) And unlike Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of “White Noise,” it’s not really a sendup of academic trends or pretensions.

Instead, it’s a sometimes cutting, sometimes empathetic account of the petty battles among people who have found that their career ladders are short a few rungs. Hank’s railing against Railton sets off a rebellion among the members of his department, including Gracie DuBois (Suzanne Cryer), a self-published poet; Paul Rourke (Cedric Yarbrough), her snide, possibly misogynistic antagonist; and Emma Wheemer (Shannon DeVido), a film-studies teacher whom a more traditionalist colleague dismisses as “a projectionist.”

None of these quick-drawn scholarly types are much competition for Hank when it comes to inhaling the narrative oxygen. Oddly, the best-realized side character in the opening episodes is a fictionalized version of the writer George Saunders (Brian Huskey), once a rising young star of Hank’s vintage — “I think I was better regarded for about 10 days,” Hank says — whose appearance for a campus event stirs Hank’s feelings of failure.

Fortunately, Odenkirk (who also played an academic in the undersung “Undone”) is up to the spotlight, playing up Hank’s self-sabotaging bravado but finding the melancholy underneath his sarcasm. Where Saul Goodman believed he could talk himself out of anything, Hank mainly wants to talk himself through his stasis. And notwithstanding his gift of gab, Odenkirk does some of his best character work in the moments when Hank falls silent, when you can see his resentment in the thin line of his mouth beneath his fuzzy beard.

That said, if you’ve had enough male midlife crisis in your prestige TV, “Lucky Hank” may not have a lot to offer you, for all its low-stakes charm. Penises figure in heavily here, as metaphors, as joke material and as penises. And while there’s an effort to improve on Russo’s sketching of women — I’m not sure how this could work as long-form TV otherwise — the development of characters like Gracie is still a work-in-progress.

There is a voice, a performance and a character study here. Is there a full series? Having seen only two of the season’s eight episodes, I cannot offer even a midterm grade, only some notes. “Lucky Hank” is disarmingly funny, though it feels like a draft that doesn’t yet know if it needs to be a short story or a novel. Unlike Hank with his students, however, I’m willing to hope that this show might reach its potential if it applies itself.

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