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Bob Odenkirk plays it straight — and great — in the AMC series 'Lucky Hank'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. This Sunday AMC presents its third series featuring comedian and now-dramatic actor Bob Odenkirk. The first, of course, was the long-running series "Breaking Bad" in which he played a supporting role as shady lawyer Saul Goodman. The second was the equally impressive spinoff show, "Better Call Saul." Now Odenkirk is back playing a new character, a college English professor with writer's block, daddy issues and overly pampered students. Two episodes of the new series, "Lucky Hank," were available for a preview. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "Breaking Bad" and "Better Call Saul" are two of my favorite TV dramas ever, and I constantly was bowled over by the subtle, unflashy but amazing acting by Bob Odenkirk on those two series. So to see him play a brand-new character in a brand-new TV series, one based on the 1997 novel "Straight Man" by Richard Russo, was something I was really looking forward to. Having seen the first two installments of this new AMC series, "Lucky Hank," I can say that so far, it's mostly establishing the conflicts and setups, but I'm eager for more.

Odenkirk plays William Henry Devereaux Jr., a tenured English professor and department chair at Railton College in rural Pennsylvania. He wrote an acclaimed first novel, but that was decades ago, and he's never produced a second. His father, a powerful literary critic, hasn't even phoned his son in 15 years. His faculty colleagues are pretentious and self-obsessed, and so are his students. One of them, played by Jackson Kelly, actually has the overinflated self-image to compare himself to the author of "The Canterbury Tales." It's a notion that Odenkirk, as the professor, shoots down vehemently in front of the entire class.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LUCKY HANK")

BOB ODENKIRK: (As William Henry Devereaux Jr.) It's a tricky thing comparing yourself to Chaucer.

JACKSON KELLY: (As Barto Williams-Stevens) Yeah. We don't know that I'm not the next Chaucer.

ODENKIRK: (As William Henry Devereaux Jr.) We do know.

KELLY: (As Barto Williams-Stevens) All due respect, you would not know.

ODENKIRK: (As William Henry Devereaux Jr.) All due respect, a cat would know.

KELLY: (As Barto Williams-Stevens) Your only novel isn't even available at your own campus bookstore.

ODENKIRK: (As William Henry Devereaux Jr.) You - you're here. You're here. The main piece of evidence is that you are here. The fact that you're here means you didn't try very hard in high school. Or for whatever reason, you showed very little promise. Did that sound harsh? I'll tell you what. I'll smile through the rest of this. You are here. And even if your presence at this middling college in this sad, forgotten town with some bizarre anomaly, and you do have the promise of genius, which I'll bet a kidney that you don't, it will never surface. I am not a good enough writer or writing teacher to bring it out of you. And how do I know that? How? Because I too am here at Railton College, mediocrity's capital.

BIANCULLI: In this early scene, Odenkirk as Hank is a lot like Bryan Cranston as Walter White the first time we met him in his high school science classroom in "Breaking Bad." There's a feeling that Hank is about to break, too, but we don't know in which direction. His wife, Lily, played by Mireille Enos from "The Killing," obviously has been riding this emotional roller coaster with her husband for some time. And the actress plays her role with wonderful grace notes of weariness, sympathy and sarcasm, often at the same time, which isn't easy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LUCKY HANK")

ODENKIRK: (As William Henry Devereaux Jr.) My father retires. It's a major thing, big enough for the biggest newspaper in the country to put it on the cover of the arts section. Good for him. Also, I find out about it from the cover of the arts section. Good for me.

MIREILLE ENOS: (As Lily Devereaux) And this makes you feel...

ODENKIRK: (As William Henry Devereaux Jr.) Nothing.

ENOS: (As Lily Devereaux) And that outburst in class...

ODENKIRK: (As William Henry Devereaux Jr.) ...Was unrelated. In fact, it felt good. I told the truth. I think I inspired myself.

ENOS: (As Lily Devereaux) To tell the truth more? That's not good.

ODENKIRK: (As William Henry Devereaux Jr.) To work on my novel.

ENOS: (As Lily Devereaux) Oh, great. Well, I love it when you start your second novel. It's usually a wonderful time in our marriage.

BIANCULLI: "Lucky Hank" is adapted for television by Paul Lieberstein, who played Toby on NBC's "The Office" and was a writer and showrunner on that series, and Aaron Zelman, who was a writer and producer on both "The Killing" and "Damages." The executive producers also include Odenkirk, author Russo and the director of the pilot, Peter Farrelly. "Lucky Hank" begins, at least, as a story of characters in quiet but almost constant conflict. Odenkirk plays it straight and plays it great, and he's got a very capable supporting cast to play with and to play off. Shannon DeVido as one of the faculty members stands out early, but it's a group that always manages to heighten the tension and the humor. In its setting and tone and in its focus on tiny fiefdoms and giant egos, "Lucky Hank" is a lot like Netflix's "The Chair" with Sandra Oh or the movie "Wonder Boys" with Michael Douglas, except the center of this story is played by Bob Odenkirk. And that's more than enough to keep me enrolled for the entire term.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. "Lucky Hank" begins Sunday on AMC. On Monday's show, we speak with actor Billy Crudup. He won an Emmy Award playing a confident, cynical TV executive in the series "The Morning Show." Among his movie credits is "Almost Famous," where he played a virtuoso rock guitarist. Now he stars in the futurist Apple TV series "Hello Tomorrow!" as a salesman marketing timeshare properties on the moon. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS' "MONK'S HAT")

DAVIES: We'll close with music from the late pianist Jessica Williams, who passed away a year ago this month. Today would have been her 75th birthday. This is her tune "Monk's Hat."

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS' "MONK'S HAT")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS' "MONK'S HAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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