In the opening moments of AMC’s “Lucky Hank,” the title character, college professor William Henry “Hank” Deveraux Jr., launches into a tirade at a student in his creative writing class. The student had objected (justifiably) to Hank being mentally checked out, but he gets pompous and defensive when Hank finally engages by shredding the student’s writing.
Then, as another student records the diatribe, Hank, played by Bob Odenkirk, really steps in it, speaking with perhaps more candor and self-awareness than Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman would in a month of “Better Call Saul” episodes.
Hank declares the student’s work is definitively lackluster because “you are here. Even if your presence at this middling college in this sad, forgotten town was some bizarre anomaly and you do have the promise of genius — which I’ll bet a kidney you don’t — it will never surface. I am not a good enough writer or writing teacher to bring it out of you. Now how do I know that? How? Because I too am here . . . at Railton College, mediocrity’s capital.”
It’s the kind of tantrum that, in a normal workplace, would cause an HR meltdown — remember Toby Flenderson trying to deal with Michael Scott’s cringeworthy behavior in “The Office.” But Hank has tenure — he’s even chairman of the floundering English Department — so he’s beyond blasé about possible repercussions.
The subsequent hullabaloo, not to mention news of looming budget cuts, plus family issues driven by decisions from both Hank’s father and his daughter, Julie (and her ditzy beau), spin Hank this way and that. The resulting series, premiering Sunday, is both a drama about Hank’s inner turmoil and a satire of academia; it’s adapted from the novel “Straight Man,” by Richard Russo, whose novels “Nobody’s Fool” and “Empire Falls” yielded superb film and TV adaptations, respectively.
“His dialogue leaps off the page,” says co-creator Aaron Zelman (“Criminal Minds,” “Damages,” “Silicon Valley”). Co-creator Paul Lieberstein — a writer and executive producer for “The Office,” who also played Toby Flenderson — notes that if you were describing the novel you wouldn’t start with the plot but would focus instead on the characters. Russo, he says, is “people first.”
Odenkirk, who signed on even before finishing “Better Call Saul,” in part because the comedy and the warmth in “Lucky Hank” were an ideal contrast and in part because Russo’s characters are “unique and quirky but there’s a truth to all of them.”
“It’s a hotbox of personalities and drives and neediness and ego,” he says of the fictional school’s faculty. “They’re all competing with each other and love each other but hate each other. It’s supercharged.”
But no matter how heated the bickering gets, Lalo Salamanca won’t show up to inflict terror. “I love that this show does not have a gun in it,” Odenkirk says. The mundanity of daily life is precisely what appealed to him. “There’s no genre — no dystopian future, no drug dealers. I can’t think of anything quite like it being made right now.”
He also loved that after the slow burn of “Saul,” “Lucky Hank” also moves at pace. “So much about TV is stasis — you find a formula and a character stays there,” Odenkirk says. “I love the degree to which Aaron and Paul let the plot and characters grow. Hank and this whole world really evolve in eight episodes. I think viewers will be pleasantly surprised by that.”
Still, finding the rhythm and tone was a challenge. “We may have written a dozen different versions of the pilot,” Zelman says. “We tried starting the same way as the novel, but they’re different animals. We weren’t getting the spirit of the book in the way that would make a great show until we came up with that scene where Hank challenges the student. Then something clicked.”
While the series is filmed like a drama, humor is baked into the core. “I’ve always been attracted to using comedy to mask drama and let it sneak in the corners,” Lieberstein says. “That’s my favorite area to write in. That’s what Russo is doing, putting Hank through some pretty serious things but letting him go at it kind of lightly.”
So while Hank’s wife, Lily, is played by Mireille Enos (“The Killing,” “World War Z”), the roster features comedy veterans like Dietrich Bader (“Veep”), Suzanne Cryer (“Silicon Valley”), Oscar Nunez (“The Office”), and Cedric Yarbrough (”Reno 911″).
“This cast is insane,” Odenkirk says. “I don’t know how I got so lucky two times in a row.”
The show’s delicate balance of drama and comedy provides a “unique vibe,” says Odenkirk, who likens it to Alexander Payne’s movies. “It’s interesting more people don’t try for this, but it is hard to do.”
While Zelman and Lieberstein created that vibe, the show rests squarely on Odenkirk’s shoulders. Many of the show’s funniest lines are fired off by Hank in smart-ass mode as a defense mechanism “because he doesn’t want to be fully present, he wants to push the moment away,” says Odenkirk. “So he doesn’t care if the joke is great or just good, he’s going to say it. He’s broken like that.”
(But Odenkirk is happy to have snapped off some of those quips on his own, citing one gem about not being late for a fantasy pickleball league draft.)
To use an “Office” analogy, Hank starts like Ricky Gervais’s David Brent but must quickly morph into mid-series Michael Scott, who manages to be likable despite his boorishness. The book gets away with it, Lieberstein says, because Hank behaves badly but his narration is thoughtful and humane and he struggles with his flaws. “We didn’t have that luxury,” he says.
“But we have a secret weapon in Bob Odenkirk,” Zelman adds. “Peter Farrelly, who directed the first two episodes, said that we can give him the most distasteful, obnoxious dialogue and somehow you’ll still like him. He can get away with it if you believe that he’s searching for happiness.”
Odenkirk says Hank is “his own worst enemy” and has gotten trapped by the persona he adapted — ”the quippy guy who’s a little distant and imperious” — as a defense against his inability to ever write a second novel.
He also loves that Hank is more self-aware than Jimmy McGill, “by a lot, even in his failings.”
“Hank is fundamentally different from Jimmy,” he says. “He absolutely knows the ways in which he’s falling short and obstinate about not growing. And I love that intelligence.”
As for conveying that inner turmoil the book laid out with first-person narration, Odenkirk credits his time as Saul and Jimmy for teaching him about acting in a drama. “I had done quite a bit of comedy before that, which usually uses a medium or wide shot with two or three actors,” he says. “But in a drama the camera gets right up in your eyeballs. Into your soul. It’s important to tell yourself that the camera can see your feelings when you’re acting, whether that’s true or not. Then I leave it to the audience to hopefully pick up on it.”