So after a long hiatus the much-acclaimed Netflix series Black Mirror arrived (Season Six) and I loved the first (terrific) episode, “Joan Is Awful.” It’s a funny twist on media, deep-fake technology, and other wrinkles of our tech-hungry culture, featuring Annie Murphy (of Schitt’s Creek fame) as a woman whose life is being broadcast as a TV show starring Salma Hayek, kind of. I’ll try not to give anything away to spoil it, but there are twists and turns and I laughed a lot. Admittedly I’m a Black Mirror fan, though I’d say about half are knockouts and the other half not-so-good. Season Six is a mixed bag, as usual. But when it hits, it really hits, as in episodes like “Fifteen Million Merits,” “Nosedive,” “U.S.S. Callister,” “Crocodile,” and many others.
But what made “Joan Is Awful” particularly unsettling: A similar thing actually happened to me when viewing the AMC series Lucky Hank, which stars Bob Odenkirk, who created (inhabited?) one of the greatest TV characters of all time—Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul. I’ve been an Odenkirk fan for years, from his days as the ruthless agent Stevie on The Larry Sanders Show and as one of the creative masterminds of The Mr. Show. But all of it pales in comparison to the magnum opus of Better Call Saul. Unfortunately all good things must come to an end and Saul season finale aired last Fall—in one of the best TV-series finales ever. (The going-back-in-time riff is genius.)
So following Saul Odenkirk stars in the AMC series Lucky Hank, which aired Season One this Spring—to mixed reviews, as far as I can tell.
But watching the first episode of Lucky Hank, was a surprise: It’s about a fiction writer (as I am) working as an administrator in an English department (which I was until January) at a college in Pennsylvania (in the series it’s the fictional Railton University, while in my life it was Penn State University—Go Nittany Lions!), who has irritating students (uh huh) and can’t stand his colleagues (don’t get me started). He has a sweet, lovely wife (ditto) and daughter (ditto), and doesn’t like his job anymore (he’s the Head of his department, I was the Director of Creative Writing). At season’s end he quits his job and leaves Pennsylvania, just as I did (last December).
The second episode features something truly weird: Odenkirk-as-Hank brings the writer George Saunders for a reading gig, just as I did—twice, actually. Now I realize this isn’t special to me, as George is a fabulous (and funny) fiction writer who has won all the awards. I’m sure he’s visited many college campuses for reading gigs. But here’s where it gets really meta: Although George is very much alive and kicking, it’s not him in the episode, but an actor playing George Saunders. And the fictional fiction-writer George comes across as something of a smug jerk, and rival-of-sorts to Hank, who is less successful and who has a prickly history with George. I can attest to my experience as a person who arranged a campus visit at Penn State with the “real” George Saunders, however, that he’s not like that. George was kind to students and faculty, gave a great reading, and stayed up till two a.m. at a party at my house afterward. One of the biggest differences as well: In the Lucky Hank episode the literature faculty fawn over George and jostle for attention with him. At Penn State a few came to the reading, but that was about it. They certainly didn’t fawn (and most, I believe, didn’t really care). It’s an odd case of the idea “art mirrors life”: Superficially it was like my experience, but with much more emotional baggage and bad behavior. I’m not surprised, of course: The show wants drama. And it was a “fictional” George Saunders anyway.
But here’s where the Black Mirror episode “Joan Is Awful” connects: I was surprised to see this plotline, that seemed lifted (accidentally, albeit) from my own life. Fortunately it didn’t have the downside-of-internet-fame element of “Joan Is Awful.” But still. The experience was like watching TV and seeing Bob Odenkirk playing me! And as I’m a big Odenkirk fan, it was both disconcerting and . . . I kind of liked it. Now Lucky Hank has come and gone (though you can find it streaming) and the whole season had its ups and downs, ending with “Hank” resigning his job at Railton University and moving to New York to be with his wife. My life: ditto. Except I resigned and headed to the mountains of Colorado, where our home is a bit larger than the 520-square-foot apartment his wife, Lily, has rented in Manhattan. And if art does imitate life in some meta-fictional universe, I hope Hank is happy.