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SXSW 2023 Review: AMC+’s ‘Lucky Hank’ Is a Hilarious View of Mediocracy

SXSW 2023 Review: AMC+’s ‘Lucky Hank’ Is a Hilarious View of Mediocracy

Everything in the life of William Henry, aka “Hank” Devereaux, Jr. (Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul) is mediocre. He is the unconvincing chair of the English department at a struggling college in Pennsylvania, with a midlife crisis that instigates an altercation with a student that creates a ripple effect of chaos among Hank’s colleagues, family, and friends. The eight-episode limited series was adapted by Paul Lieberstein (The Newsroom, The Office) and Aaron Zelman (Silicon Valley, The Killing), who are also co-showrunners, from the novel Straight Man (by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo).

Lucky Hank is a solid acerbic dramedy about a man who has lived a good life but never reached his full potential. Hank is charming enough to have attracted an intelligent and loving wife, Lilly (Mireille Enos, The Killing), and has a slightly annoying daughter who has reached young adulthood. Still, Hank is a man who seems to have settled for less and is living with regret. The pilot episodeis chaotically funny and heart-stinging in all the right unexpected places. The cast is filled with character actors from The Office, Silicon Valley, Modern Family, Reno 911! and other sitcoms we all know and love.  

The inciting incident in the pilot between Hank and his student Barto Williams-Stevens (Jackson Kelly, The Thing About Pam) reminds me of a light version of the inciting incident in the pilot of HBO’s The Newsroom, where Jeff Daniel’s Will McAvoy says precisely what is on his mind after a college student asks the question, “What makes America the greatest country in the world?”

Hank’s inspiration to speak the truth he never says is instigated by his student Barto, who could be an inspiration for the quote, “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white male.” This kid is 100% hubris with absolutely nothing to show for it, yet the toxic sensitivity of this young white man impacts the entire community. The difference between Will McAvoy and Hank Devereaux is that Will is coming from a place of having realized his success and talent and being disillusioned, while Hank never realized his full potential and is reckoning with the fact that life has an expiration date.

Bob Odenkirk is one of my favorite actors. With a full beard, glasses, and subtle physical adjustments, Hank is nothing like the lawyer/con man Saul Goodman who is full of bravado in cheap-looking expensive suits Odenkirk embodied perfectly. There is an inherent pathetic low-grade anger in Hank that I see in middle-aged suburban white men wandering around Whole Foods, puttering around in their yards, or angrily running on treadmills at high-end gyms that is jarring. Odenkirk embodies this character magnificently.

The ensemble of actors who complete the world are fantastic.

As Dean Jacob Rose, Oscar Nunez (The Office) gives us a variation on the uptight administrator, who is far too concerned with the limited middle management power he wields in this sheltered world. Another standout is the film teacher Shannon DeVido (Emma Wheemer, Difficult People), who has one of the best moments of the episode and made me laugh out loud.

Lucky Hank authentically reflects the quiet desperation of people who are stuck in the place they settled in.  Some choose to embrace their station by rewriting the past with rose-colored glasses while others fight to be big fish in a small pond for whatever power they can get in the English department. Still, others resign themselves to being unnaturally happy. They have tenure while consuming as much alcohol as possible off campus to forget they did not live up to their expectations.  

The writers are able to find humor in the interactions between the students who actually believe in their greatness without trying to do the work of becoming great. There’s a scene where students ask for honest feedback, only to reject the honest feedback and defend their mediocre work. The heart of humor lies in characters who are happily ignorant of their apparent flaws. Lucky Hank takes a satirical look at academia grounded in the truth that I’m sure professors and students alike will appreciate. 

The pacing of the pilot episode is perfect and the cinematography is superb. Although the series is set in a college town in Pennsylvania, Lucky Hank was filmed in Vancouver, BC, and it felt exactly like an American college town. Two side plots look like they will be interesting to watch unfold. The first is Hank’s relationship with his father, a successful writer living in New York City who Hank hasn’t spoken to in fifteen years and who may be coming back into Hank’s life. The second involves Hank’s daughter and her boyfriend’s sketchy business venture. To be sure, the following seven episodes of this limited series will be an entertaining journey not to be missed.

The pilot premieres at the 2023 SXSW festival the second week in March, and the series premieres on Sunday, March 19, 2023, on AMC+ and AMC.

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