“Lucky Hank” fits right into the trend. Redefining yourself in middle age, updating your life to fit your more weathered understanding of what truly matters, has become a surprisingly common story on TV these days. Ranging from the heroines of “Somebody Somewhere” and “Mare of Easttown” to almost everyone in “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” TV has embraced the theme, and so have audiences, many of whom revel in the weekly emotional shifts of the newly divorced Ted Lasso.
The new AMC series starring Bob Odenkirk falls squarely into the coming-of-middle-age category. Odenkirk, just off “Better Call Saul,” plays a cranky English professor at the fictional Railton College who has lost sight of his motivation, both as a teacher and a novelist. Hank — real name William Henry Devereaux Jr. — is barely going through the motions, pouting quietly in his writing workshop while his students crave guidance and wisdom. One day in class, his existential crisis erupts, and, feeling perhaps too safe as a tenured prof, he accuses his students and all of Railton of mediocrity. The rant goes viral, he is canceled, and, only partially through the premiere, which airs Sunday at 9 p.m., I was already getting tired of “Lucky Hank.”
That particular subject is exhausted, and anyway the whole canceled-on-campus thing was already done on Sandra Oh’s “The Chair.” “Lucky Hank” doesn’t drag it out, which is nice, and the resolution of the plot line is comic, which is also nice. But the plot makes for an inauspicious beginning, as Hank’s role as chair of the English Department falls into jeopardy. My first impressions of the show were not improved by Mireille Enos’s likable but shallow turn as his supportive wife, Lily, and by Hank’s voiceover commentary, which wends in and out of the action inelegantly and feels like a storytelling crutch. I wondered if the series, based on Richard Russo’s novel “Straight Man” and developed by Aaron Zelman (“The Killing”) and Paul Lieberstein (“The Office”), was going to be a dull, distended take on the campus movie “The Wonder Boys.”
And then I saw the second episode, and it was a marked improvement over the first. Unfortunately, since AMC sent out only two episodes for review, I can’t say whether “Lucky Hank” will continue to find its best self after that; but episode two is a more specific look into Hank’s bleakness — he’s more than just a temperamental crank in a tweed jacket — and it features a richer performance by Odenkirk. Hank’s father is a famous literary figure, which makes Hank the junior to a senior who offered nurturance and support to other writers but not to his own son. Hank is lashing out — and experiencing writer’s block — because of his own insecurities, many of them grounded in his fear that his career is based on his father’s fame. The show becomes a more compelling and knowing character study the further we go into the mire of Hank’s psyche.
The second episode revolves around a visit to Railton by celebrated author George Saunders (played by Brian Huskey). The fictionalized Saunders is one of Hank’s frenemies; they make nice to each other, but there’s a rabid competitiveness underneath, one that Saunders, with his literary prizes and student worship, is winning. The college bookstore doesn’t even carry Hank’s only novel. Their strain is also the result of the fact that Hank’s father has long been a champion of Saunders. The show finds wry comedy in the passive aggression of their feuding, which Huskey deploys quietly but surely.
The show offers some familiar but charming workplace comedy when it comes to the other professors in the English Department, all of whom are quirky (as they were on “The Chair”) and pettier than they know. Suzanne Cryer as the oversensitive poet and Cedric Yarbrough as the professor who refuses to indulge her are amusing, and so is Shannon DeVido as a film professor whose response to Saunders is a hoot. Oscar Nunez fits in nicely as a sly dean who knows how to get what he wants from the stubborn Hank. It’s not clear if these and other supporting characters (including Diedrich Bader as Hank’s best friend) will serve as comic relief for a darker story of a man in distress, or if, perhaps, the whole series, including Hank’s angst, will all take on the air of a dramedy. Like everything about “Lucky Hank,” it’s a wait-and-see situation.