Bob Odenkirk scores with “Lucky Hank,” a frustrated guy who shares DNA with his “Saul” conman

You should know that the only deaths in the first two episodes of “Lucky Hank” are the title character’s dignity and his internal editor. Neither goes quietly; actually, it’s a murder-suicide.

English professor William “Hank” Devereaux, Jr. can’t help himself when one of his creative writing students, a spindly narcissist far too in love with his ability to string words into sentences, reminds his teacher that his only novel isn’t even available at the campus bookstore. Hank retorts with the unerring aim of a professional assassin.

“You? You’re here! You’re here! . . . The fact that you’re here means that you didn’t try very hard in high school or, for whatever reason, you showed very little promise.”

This is not something that a person charged with molding young minds should ever say. But Hank goes further, telling the considerably less confident boy that even if he held the promise of genius, Hank lacks the ability bring it out in him. “And how do I know this? How? Because I, too, am here! At Railton College, mediocrity’s capital!”

As rants go this one’s a real beaut, such a furnace blast that another student records it on her phone and quickly circulates it through the campus. But Hank does not despair. He knows he’ll either skate through the blowback since he’s a tenured professor or be fired, freeing him from the shackles of second-rate academia. In his mind he’s more screwed if he’s forced to remain where he is, stuck in this serene Pennsylvania college town that gives him everything he needs but is killing him slowly.

“Lucky Hank” is a brilliant way for Bob Odenkirk to follow “Better Call Saul” because the two title characters are more alike than one might suspect. 

It’s also an experiment, allowing us to see whether the actor has as much magnetism to pull an audience to him as his “Breaking Bad” universe persona enjoyed.

Odenkirk’s dramatic breadth transfixes the viewer wherever he turns up. In 2021’s breakneck diversion “Nobody” he’s Hutch, a retired special forces agent who resurfaces to tear through an army of thugs who threaten to hurt his family. The movie is a slight action romp, but Odenkirk’s performance has weight because of what Hutch stands for, before his rampage: He’s a middle-aged loser who never gets the trash to the curb in time to catch the garbage truck. A man whose wife keeps him at bay by sleeping behind a wall of pillows. A scraggly beta male, until he flips the alpha switch on everyone’s asses.

Odenkirk’s “Better Call Saul” performance was unmissable. He has the same magnetism in “Lucky Hank.”

Saul Goodman isn’t that guy, but he flexes in a way that makes men like Hutch seek him out for help. Both figures exist within the same body; both are brutes, in their way. But Saul had a broken soul, and the scarred heart of Jimmy McGill, a Midwestern slip-and-fall con man trying not just to make good but do better.

Odenkirk, like Jimmy, is an Illinois native from a very nice place called Naperville, he writes in his memoir “Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama,” “which is what it sounds like: a small town in Illinois named after a determined white man with righteous self-certainty named (no kidding) ‘Joe Naper.'” The actor is not that guy, but his work lets us know he’s familiar with the type. He’s also aware of how many Joe Napers are out there – entitled white men chafing against the limits and expectations of the lovely ‘burbs where they live comfortably and fit in seamlessly.

That’s what made his “Better Call Saul” performance unmissable. Similar energy propels his work in “Lucky Hank,” a wickedly droll departure even if Hank is, spiritually, a distant relation to Jimmy McGill. They share the same voice, except one imagines the actor trading in the desert’s worth of sand in his timbre for a mountain of Keystone state gravel.

Mireille Enos in “Lucky Hank” (AMC)

They also draw from adjacent wells of thwarted ambition. Hank’s father is a renowned critic and author, long estranged from his son. Hank’s novel, as his cocky, middling talent of a student reminds him, is an afterthought. Still, he’s the chair of his department and has a loving wife, Lily (Mireille Enos) who isn’t living her best life either. But as the vice principal at a local school, she manages to hold her misery at around 30 to 40 percent. “I think you’re at 80,” she tells her husband.

“Lucky Hank” is a workplace comedy, albeit one whose episodes are more than 40 minutes long and whose co-workers are “trapped in success,” as co-showrunner Paul Lieberstein described them to reporters covering the show’s recent Television Critics Association press conference.

Saul was fenced in by a Mexican drug cartel, and later by Walter White; Hutch was socially and psychologically shoved into cold storage somewhere in suburbia. Hank’s plight, in contrast, lacks the physical danger lurking around Odenkirk’s other recent roles. At Railton, the main violence is achieved through insult and belittling gestures, and the only blood drawn is accidental. Yet the academic workplace is soul-crushing in ways that anybody can relate to.

Odenkirk’s latest man tests what happens when a person reduces himself to meet his current expectations, which are low.

Lieberstein previously worked on “The Office” as one of its producers and as Toby, the bland HR representative everyone slagged off on. The plight of Odenkirk’s professor and his colleagues on “Lucky Hank” are similar to that of Dunder Mifflin’s inmates, save for the higher level of intellectual discourse and lower stakes.

“You can’t leave that job,” Lieberstein explained of Hank’s tenured status. “So, it just allows people to kind of behave very badly in a semi-protected way.”

If only the show enjoyed that level of certainty. “Lucky Hank” is not an extension of a franchise, although it is adapted from Richard Russo’s 1997 bestseller “Straight Man.” Odenkirk joked about that by gently ribbing his channel’s all-in bet on zombies, vampires and witches. “I could’ve been a zombie,” he replied to a question about the options that landed on his doorstep at the end “Saul.” But seriously folks . . . those monsters net ratings.

Bob Odenkirk as Hank in “Lucky Hank” (Sergei Bachlakov/AMC)

And yet, in choosing to star in a story about a guy who resents his decent life, Odenkirk is also playing to his strength as a sturdy actor who knows how to infuse each line with simple fervency and humor, and who wears the weary slump of a man roughed up by life.

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Hank Devereaux is not Saul Goodman, but you get the sense they’d understand each other’s refusal to trust the good fortune that comes their way. Hank takes a straighter path, making him not a warning or a study in corruption, but a vision of what it’s like for a gifted writer to fade into irrelevance after years of getting in his own way.

At Railton, there is no looming threat of annihilative destruction by unhinged drug lords or their henchmen. The first two episodes contain no indication that Hank is hiding any vices. He puts it all out there, especially his low expectations for his himself.

Yes, “Lucky Hank” is pure Odenkirk, who’s at his best when he’s play average guys who feel assailed on all sides and pushed beyond their limits even as life is offering them a soft bed. Only this show’s criminals are cynicism, outsized egos and bad taste, all of which Hank handles with a straight-razor wit and via means that are entirely within the law. We hope that’s enough for people. It deserves to be.

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