Consider two trend pieces published in the past month. “Millennials are hitting middle age—and it doesn’t look like what we were promised,” went a New York Times article on the vanishing narrative of the “midlife crisis.” As reporter Jessica Grose wrote, “Many people said they felt they couldn’t be having a midlife crisis because there was no bourgeois numbness to rebel against. Rather than longing for adventure and release, they craved a sense of safety and calmness, which they felt they had never known.” Meanwhile, the English major is “ending,” or so say university programs’ enrollment numbers and the New Yorker, and the number of people who can pull off the nice trick of exiting from an English Ph.D. program—or really any humanities Ph.D. program—and getting a tenure-track job is in free-fall.
Given these grim realities of 2023, is it possible now to make a funny TV show out of Richard Russo’s Straight Man? The 1997 novel is about a tenured fiftysomething English professor at an obscure college who has published only one book, and is miserable because he isn’t as famous and accomplished as his dad, who was an academic star in the classic mold—Columbia, huge lecture fees, retirement announcement on the front page of the New York Times’ Arts section. Hank’s type of damned-by-comfort writerly situation is vanishing so rapidly as to make his internal freakout look less humorous, more ridiculous. Campus comedies are dying along with tenure—or they’re being forced to evolve. Paul Lieberstein and Aaron Zelman are trying to do just that, offering us a grayed-up, wrinkled Bob Odenkirk as the professor Hank Devereaux in AMC’s Lucky Hank.
Russo’s novel is unexpectedly thoughtful about the so-called tenure trap, a device the novelist uses to look at classic middle-aged questions common among artists and writers who’ve attained medium levels of success. Repeatedly, Hank-in-the-novel examines his reasons for never having written another book and for being “stuck” in a small town that, honestly, seems as if it might be perfectly fine if he’d just relax a little bit. “I sometimes tell myself I might have found another book in me if I’d been in a different, more demanding environment, one with better students, more ambitious colleagues, a shared sense of artistic urgency, the proper reverence for the life of the mind,” Hank muses. “But then I remember Occam’s Razor, which strongly suggests that I am a one-book author. Had I been more, I’d be more. Simple.”
The pilot of Lucky Hank lacks this kind of depth. But the second episode gets better. It features the comic actor Brian Huskey playing the fiction writer George Saunders, a real-life person whose real-life success serves as a foil to what Hank would see as his own wasted promise. It’s the episode that does the best so far at returning to the novel’s rapidly-becoming-outdated set of questions about hierarchy and ambition among people who work in the humanities. Are these issues still interesting, at this time of extreme precarity? It turns out they are. In Saunders, the show’s writers picked the perfect character for this episode: a boomer writer who has won every prize you can win, and who (by the way) has tenure (at Syracuse) but who is also prolific and undeniably profound. You can have a good life teaching and writing, even in this economy, the existence of this character tells us. You just have to be a genius.
“George Saunders,” which is what this episode is titled, is an invention of the show—no analog appears in Russo’s book. As the dean of faculty, Jacob Rose (The Office’s Oscar Nuñez) tries to persuade Hank to get on board with acting as moderator for Saunders’ appearance on campus, for which they are paying him $50,000. Hank, who is terrified by the idea of seeing Saunders again, responds to each citation of his old acquaintance’s honors with a shrug. “Booker Prize–winning George Saunders?” Jacob asks. “British prize, very pretentious,” Hank mutters. “Named one of the 100 most influential people by Time Magazine?” Jacob adds. “Time Magazine isn’t what it used to be,” says Hank, speaking a truth that applies to many things in Lucky Hank.
Huskey plays Saunders as the kind of successful person who can afford to be generous with anyone, and mostly is. He can connect with Hank’s lackluster students, charm his cantankerous colleagues, even be self-deprecating. Even so, Hank can barely manage to stifle his jealousy long enough to interact with him. “How did you each get published?” a moderator asks Hank and Saunders, in a long-ago panel Hank rewatches on YouTube, which was recorded around the time Hank wrote his only book, when he and Saunders were both young men of promise. “I slept with his father,” Saunders ripostes, a moment that pulls together many threads. It’s an oblique reference to Hank’s status as a nepo baby, triggering his lifelong suspicion that his own modest success is due to his paternity, and a joke about a mentor-mentee relationship between Saunders and William Henry Devereaux Sr. that actually exists, much to Hank’s jealousy.
It’s not just Hank, either: The entire department is unable to act right around Saunders. They invite him to come stay in their guesthouses, laugh inappropriately long at his jokes, think too hard about what he’s said—are even cruel to him because they don’t know what to say to such a star. Saunders’ success shows that even as the middle gets hollowed out in professions like “writer,” there are still people at the top—and those people still have the capacity to make the middle miserable.
Like The Chair, the 2021 Sandra Oh–starring Netflix series about another troubled English department at another small fictional school, Lucky Hank is about conflict among people fighting over a shrinking pie, a rapidly dwindling resource not just of money but of the ability to do what you love. This is an element that the showrunners of Lucky Hank have amplified from the book, which was set in a period when state legislatures were in the middle of their project of defunding the humanities at state schools but when things were not yet so dire as they are today. Hank can’t live up to his father, who was the kind of full professor whose books were (as Russo describes them) “ ‘hot,’ the subject of intense debate at English department cocktail parties,” and who was invited to universities to act as a well-paid visiting professor. Devereaux Sr.’s engagement with the entire apparatus of the university was maximally extractive, the opposite of Hank’s entrenched position as a beholden, obligated chair and professor of long standing who is convinced that his two jobs—teaching and administrating—have made it impossible for him to write.
But this genius, Devereaux Sr., also married and left a series of younger graduate students. Hank’s mother, a classic midcentury faculty-wife typist and factotum, was a victim of this abandonment, 40 years prior, but can’t stop thinking of Hank’s father’s work as somehow part of her life. It’s sad because she is pining after a man who left her; it’s sadder because to her that man also represented books, a thing she loves. The younger people in Lucky Hank—Bartow (Jackson Kelly), a student who is convinced he is going to become a writer but whose stuff is awful; Meg (Sara Amini), an adjunct in the department who was Hank’s advisee and who is hoping for a tenure-track position at the college but whom Hank tries to persuade to leave town instead—are also in love with writing, and with literature, and it terrifies Hank, who can’t figure out how to convince them they should find something else to do. In this episode, Saunders’ position is enviable because he is above all of this mess. He somehow seems to have worked his way into the ability to just engage with writing itself—not with the troubled apparatus that supports it.
Lucky Hank is at its best when it recognizes how this complex landscape of jealousy and self-doubt among people who love reading and writing is changing. In Straight Man, Hank bemoans his unambitious daughter Julie’s lack of curiosity. He suspects that she is that way because she had a secure childhood. “Julie, my wife would insist, is living evidence of our skill in parenting, that rare adult who doesn’t see the world as a dangerous, treacherous place,” he thinks to himself. “She expects to be loved, to be rewarded for her efforts, to be treated generously. She had tenure as a child and now expects it as an adult.” Hank diagnoses Julie this way because, of course, he is convinced that too much security has ruined his own mind. But increasingly, the problem will be inverted: People who love reading and writing will wonder what they could have done with a little more security. As comic situations go, this one is getting darker.