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'Better Call Saul' star's new series 'Lucky Hank' makes a midlife crisis compelling

Bob Odenkirk as Hank on AMC's Lucky Hank.
Sergei Bachlakov
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Sergei Bachlakov/AMC
Bob Odenkirk as Hank on AMC's Lucky Hank.

There is no one who plays the exasperated everyguy like Bob Odenkirk.

It's the reason why his turn as a hitman-in-schlub's clothing worked so well in the film Nobody. And why we rooted for him as drug lawyer Saul Goodman in both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.

But even a performer who got legions of fans to sympathize with a ruthless drug lawyer-in-the-making that unintentionally railroaded his brother into suicide and got an innocent man murdered, may face the ultimate challenge in his latest series for AMC, Lucky Hank.

He's trying to make us all care about an entitled, sarcastic, painfully self-aware English professor. On the verge of a midlife crisis.

Mireille Enos as Lily on Lucky Hank.
Sergei Bachlakov / Sergei Bachlakov/AMC
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Sergei Bachlakov/AMC
Mireille Enos as Lily on Lucky Hank.

Making a life's unraveling seem entertaining

It's true, we've seen these kinds of stories before (Sandra Oh – another virtuoso of the exasperated everywoman role – just clocked her own masterful performance in Netflix's 2021 comedy The Chair). But Odenkirk offers a next-level turn as William Henry Devereaux, Jr., a professor — and English department chair — who feels trapped at the underfunded, mediocre (also fictional) Railton College, surrounded by underperforming students and dysfunctional colleagues.

His department is so backward that when his colleagues decide to unseat him as chair, they screw up and vote him back into the job by mistake. His students are so unimpressive that Devereaux tells one aspiring writer that the proof he is mediocre is that he's enrolled at a place as bad as Railton.

Devereaux also tells the student he can be assured that his teacher is also mediocre, because he's stuck at Railton, too.

This could be a recipe for annoyance if anyone other than Odenkirk was playing Devereaux – a damaged, bitter guy who can't help stepping in personal land mines he sets for himself. As viewers quickly learn, he's struggling with crippling writer's block, which set in not long after he wrote a well-regarded novel decades ago. Worse, he's also overshadowed by his famous, more accomplished novelist/professor father, who abandoned Devereaux and his mother.

Odenkirk's likability and ease with a punchline keeps viewers engaged in Devereaux's story, even as we learn he's got a beautiful, smart, equally-self aware wife and a supportive friend/boss that he probably doesn't deserve.

These days, I have a low threshold for TV centered on entitled jerks who don't realize how privileged their lives are. But Lucky Hank avoids that pitfall by playing up the absurdity of academia, college life and educational bureaucracy in a way that makes almost everyone look both bone-headed and long-suffering.

In other words — to distort a phrase — just because these characters are self-sabotaging and often self-involved, that doesn't mean the system they're stuck in isn't also a moronic, life-sucking enterprise that doesn't constantly fail them.

"You can't help these kids," Odenkirk's Devereaux tells one adjunct professor, who aspires to join the tenured, full-time faculty. "There's more promise in a senior citizen's yoga class."

Helped by a killer supporting cast

Odenkirk is aided in this quirky enterprise by an ace supporting cast, which includes The Killing alum Mireille Enos as the aforementioned wife Lily, The Office alum Oscar Nunez as the buddy/boss Dean Rose, Drew Carey Show alum Diedrich Bader as another buddy/colleague Tony and Kyle MacLachlan as Railton's president, Dickie Pope.

They're all playing characters — with maybe the exception of MacLachlan's rigid opportunist Pope — who are stuck in variously unfulfilling places, doing the best they can. And they are annoyed to varying degrees by a guy like Odenkirk's Deveraux, who can't help speaking honestly about what he's going through. No matter how socially unacceptable or damaging his disclosures might be.

For those of us who have had the pleasure of working in academia, the situations described here will feel as familiar as your favorite sweater and annoying as that driver who keeps their left turn signal on for blocks and blocks. But, in truth, anyone of a certain age who has struggled to find fulfillment in a longtime career, relationship or hometown will identify with the characters and situations revealed here, while wondering for many episodes what the show's ultimate endgame really is.

Based on Richard Russo's 1997 novel Straight Man, Lucky Hank also continues Odenkirk's astronomically good luck in choosing projects, reaching from his work on Breaking Bad to starring in Better Call Saul to landing almost immediately in this series — yet another high-quality meditation on the tribulations of an aggravated everyguy.

It's way too early to tell if Lucky Hank will reach the heights of Odenkirk's other recent projects. But the first four episodes are a good sign — evidence that the evolution of a midlife crisis can still make compelling television, if the right performer is playing the person going through it all.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.