Despite being labeled a “comedy” or even a “dark comedy,” I don’t recall ever really laughing at, or during, Lucky Hank. I may also be missing what black/dark comedy is if this is listed as one. The main dude, Hank, is the head of a college English department. He doesn’t murder anybody. He doesn’t have a secret drug habit or scheme to commit any sort of crime or otherwise do anything dark. He’s a tenured professor who lives what, by all accounts, is a pretty good life. Nice house, smart/pretty wife, respect at work… He’s just middle-aged and kind of dissatisfied with the direction his career has taken. And is kinda cranky. That’s not dark; that’s just living. So, if the show isn’t funny (and, honestly, doesn’t put much effort into being funny) and isn’t in any way dark, how do we call it a black/dark comedy? Quite a conundrum.
I have a queue of unread books that’s about 45 titles long. These are electronic books I purchased and currently own. I don’t commute anymore, and my reading has fallen off dramatically. One of those books sitting there gathering digital dust is Straight Man by Richard Russo. The novel on which this series, Lucky Hank, is based. A fact I knew nothing about until I read it about five minutes ago. But I do recall being attracted to the concept of the white dude, college English professor going through a midlife crisis. A favorite of every literary fiction author ever. Including, for instance, Michael Chabon’sWonder Boys and the inspiration for that book, Chuck Kinder’s Honeymooners. Academia, man. It’s the drug that no writer can avoid. Writers writing about writing. Or vain writers struggling to write and/or manage other writers. My point is, this show spoke to me the same way the idea of Straight Man did — even though I had no idea they were related. Unfortunately for this series, The Chair exists. And beat it to series by eighteen months. And is, ultimately, a way better series. Even though it got canceled — because nobody wants adult dramadies anymore.
Let’s talk about Hank. In the context of Bob Odenkirk. Hank is the everything character. His name is in the title, and he dominates the screen time as the English chair of a no-name, mid-tier university in PA. The show is nominally a workplace comedy. Which makes sense since it was developed by The Office’sPaul Lieberstein (aka Toby Flenderson). But it isn’t really an ensemble in the typical way a workplace sitcom would be. It’s Odenkirk’s show, and Hank is the sun, moon and stars. The issue — and I feel bad saying this — Bob is not the world’s strongest actor unless he’s in scenes with strong actors. He’s good in the scenes with Mireille Enos, who plays his wife. And reasonably funny when in scenes with comedy series vet, Diedrich Bader, who plays his over-the-top best friend. But outside of that, it feels like he’s stretching. He feels unmoored. Like he doesn’t have that acting partner anchor the way he did, for instance, with Rhea Seehorn on Better Caul Saul. And I don’t know if it’s the writing or what, but his performance is a little… float-y. And his supporting cast isn’t given enough to do — or in most cases isn’t strong enough — to make up the difference.
So what it all comes down to is that the series is boring. Absolutely nothing happens. There are no stakes. There is no real tension. There is barely a plot, and it’s unclear why we should dedicate hours of our time with this Hank fella. You keep waiting for that breaking point. For the narrative to catch fire in some way. But it just kind of keeps this mid-tempo hum. Adding in a strange, out-of-nowhere backstory that revolves around a suicide attempt that is just head-shakingly odd. And this whole thing where Hank “boxes” a goose that looks like Hipster Jr. Jr. did the CGI on her Switch, or like projected it on a sheet and had Odenkirk stand in front of it. I think this scene was somehow critical in the novel, but it just comes off as superfluous and stupid on the show. I think whomever stuck this in there missed the point and/or edited out some stuff that would have made it make any sense whatsoever. It’s just dumb.
Look, I wanted Bob to pull this one off. I think he’s probably one of the most beloved actors on TV. He seems like a nice dude, and has really carved out a niche for himself after being a sketch guy for years. His acting has markedly improved, but he needs someone who isn’t Toby Flenderson writing his lines and/or giving him direction in his dramatic turns. The way it is, the series presented super-flat. Actors sat in scenes at times looking as confused and disengaged as I probably did chilling on my couch. I don’t need everything to be The White Lotus or Succession. I don’t even need everything to be Better Call Saul. But if you’re advertising a comedy-drama, you have to be even a little bit funny. Or a little bit dramatic. Because if you ride that line of being neither, like Lucky Hank did, you end up satisfying absolutely nobody.