One of the funniest American contributions to the tradition of the campus novel is Richard Russo’s Straight Man (1997), which follows the middle-aged English professor William Henry Deveraux Jr. during a particularly eventful week at West Central Pennsylvania University (not a real school) in Railton, Pa. (not a real town). An adaptation of Russo’s work is airing on AMC, but because no network executive in his left mind would greenlight a show called Straight Man—you might as well pitch Cisgender Patriarch, even if Russo’s title refers to the stiff in a comedy routine—it’s called Lucky Hank. (The new title is an apt homage to Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, the ne plus ultra of academic comedies.) Although it’s an enjoyable show with many excellent performances, six episodes into its eight-episode season I’ve found myself disappointed by how it underplays the novel’s slapstick humor and squalid setting.
Bob Odenkirk, fresh off his marvelous performance on Better Call Saul, stars as the title character, a struggling novelist and chair of the English department at Railton College. Underachieving and acerbic, Hank is frustrated by his mediocre students, bickering and back-stabbing colleagues, and financially duplicitous administrators who plan to shrink his department even as they find money for a new tech center. At home, his wife has reconnected with a former lover and is pursuing a job in New York City, his daughter has married a loser, his estranged father—an academic legend—is moving back to town and, much to Hank’s annoyance, his mother is welcoming him. That’s a lot of great material to work with—unfortunately, many of these plotlines disappear for episodes at a time, which impedes the show’s narrative momentum.
Still, Odenkirk is likable even as a curmudgeon, and he’s surrounded by an exceptional cast, especially Mireille Enos as his wife, Diedrich Bader as his philandering friend, and Suzanne Cryer, Cedric Yarbrough, and Shannon DeVido as some of his departmental foils. Indeed, the dysfunctions of the Railton English department are a source of some of the show’s funniest moments. With their selfishness and pettiness, the professors are Seinfeld characters with graduate degrees. The most they can do when one of them (Cryer) lands a poem in the Atlantic is to offer her muted congratulations as she over-celebrates. These characters are compelling in part because whereas the novel is narrated by Hank, the series devotes many scenes to the Hank-free perspectives of the supporting cast.
A cynical viewer might observe that the department’s faculty looks like it was selected by Railton’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion administrators, but that’s hardly relevant when the characters are so funny and played so well. More tragic is the disappearance of the professor in Straight Man known as Orshee. Although he was an English professor, Orshee "had no interest in literature per se. Feminist critical theory and image-oriented culture were his particular academic interests. He taped television sitcoms and introduced them into the curriculum in place of phallocentric, symbol-oriented texts (books)." He was nicknamed Orshee because whenever anyone used a masculine pronoun, Orshee "corrected the speaker, saying, ‘Or she.’" None of the show's spoofs of academic culture are quite as funny as this.
The show’s humor has been disappointing in other ways. Even though the first two episodes were directed by Peter Farrelly, one of the Farrelly Brothers behind Dumb & Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, it has generally eschewed the slapstick humor that made the book so memorable. In the book, Hank—donning prop glasses and a fake nose—appears on a newscast threatening to kill a goose a day until the school meets his budget demands. The show’s version of this moment offers a kinder, gentler, and less funny Hank. And when his colleagues attempt to vote him out as department chair, the show has Hank sitting at the conference table with them as their plan backfires. In the novel, he spies on them from the ceiling, desperate to remain undiscovered because he urinated in his pants during a nap moments before. (A mysterious physical ailment—kidney stones? Enlarged prostate? Cancer?—is an important part of the novel.) These slapstick moments are not only hilarious; they also underscore Hank’s desperation and the demeaning nature of his job.
But I’ve been especially disappointed by how the show depicts the college campus and the surrounding town. The series makes clear that Railton College is experiencing financial difficulties and that the faculty is unhappy. Hank calls it a "middling college in [a] sad, forgotten town" and discourages most people from staying there. Yet the school itself is beautiful: The scenes with the English department are set in the kind of faculty lounge I’ve heard about in legends but have never seen with my own eyes. Administrators sit behind ornate desks in offices that must smell of rich mahogany. Characters walk in and out of gray stone buildings that are so majestic, if their walls could speak it would be in Latin. Apart from the duct tape on the steering wheel of his Volvo, Hank seems to be living comfortably.*
But in Straight Man, Hank’s building is going through the long process of asbestos removal and its ceiling is in disrepair, while Railton itself is in postindustrial despair. Early in the novel, Hank describes Church Street, which "parallels the railyard that divides the city of Railton into two dingy, equally unattractive halves:"
A century ago the entire yard would have been full, the city of Railton itself thriving, its citizens looking forward to a secure future. No longer. On Church Street … there is no longer a single church, though there were once, I’m told, half a dozen. … It’s the fact that there are so many empty, littered spaces in Railton, like the windblown expanses between the boxcars and railyard, that challenges hope.
Elsewhere, Hank explains that "what remains of the business district is so sooty and gray that a month of rains couldn’t cleanse it, and the town is such a blight that" there are plans for an interstate to bypass it. And in Russo’s novel, Railton’s air of decline seeps into the lives of its citizens, including a man named William Cherry, a railroad employee who "has recently taken his life by lying down on the track in the middle of the night." Such details are crucial to understanding Hank's personal and professional crises, so the show is shallower for only hinting at them with the occasional sound of a passing train. (The show does develop a suicide attempt that’s only touched upon in the book, but it has more to do with Hank’s relationship with his father than the despair of Railton.)
Previous adaptations of Russo’s novels—the film Nobody’s Fool (1994) and the HBO miniseries Empire Falls (2005)—showcased the run-down nature of the towns in which they were set, which helped viewers understand some of the forces shaping the characters’ lives and hindering their ambitions. But Lucky Hank flinches. That could be because the show is filmed in Vancouver, but even The Office managed to make Los Angeles feel Scrantonic when necessary. Perhaps there’s also a political element to this failure, as depicting the struggles of the white working class in western Pennsylvania these days could imply sympathy for the wrong party.
I’m interested to see how the next two episodes of Lucky Hank resolve the tensions and plotlines it has developed so far. But I’ve given up expecting it to match the quality of its source material; that train has left the station.
Lucky Hank airs Sundays on AMC.
*Update May 10, 2023: Subsequent viewings of the show reveal that the reviewer was mistaken when he thought he saw duct tape on the steering wheel. Even Hank's Volvo is pristine.
Christopher J. Scalia is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Published under: TV Reviews