Bob Odenkirk talks about returning to TV with ‘Lucky Hank’
Just seven months after Better Call Saul unleashed its series finale, Bob Odenkirk was back on AMC, stirring up all sorts of trouble, a quippy man at a crossroads and in crisis.
This time, though, he wasn’t aiding or betting on a meth-making megalomaniac. He was not caught in the crosshairs of warring cartels or facing down a menacing look from a dirty cop-turned-fixer. He was just a college professor, sitting in front of other college professors, about to find out if he was about to be removed as chairman of the English department. You know — real-world stakes.
Based on Richard Russo’s 1997 novel Straight Man
Lucky Hank chronicles the unraveling and re-education of William Henry “Hank” Devereaux Jr. (Odenkirk), who is leading a non-kinetic life as a professor at Railton College, an also-ran school in Pennsylvania’s Rust Belt. Years ago, he penned a promising novel, but that’s long forgotten, and he never followed it up. One day he finds out by opening The New York Times that his estranged father, a towering literary critic, is retiring. So much to see here. Soon after, he’s stagnating in one of his writing seminars, when he is prodded by a high-on-his-own-supply student to stop being so quiet and start offering some feedback. Hank levels up and dresses down the student; pitchforked campus outrage follows, but he refuses to apologize.
Academic escalations ensue, and his English department colleagues — led by pompous poetry professor Gracie (Suzanne Cryer) — hold a vote to de-chair him. He is de-chaired, but in a comedically futile follow-up vote to determine the next leader, Hank winds up re-chaired for three years.
Meanwhile, his wife, high school vice principal Lily (Mireille Enos), has been having her own workplace issues. But there may be a light at the end of this small-town tunnel in the form of a Big Apple job, something she only re-pursued with Hank’s prodding. But after Hank is re-elected as chair, he squashes that dream again. Kinda makes you want to smack him with a notebook, but don’t worry, Gracie has that taken care of.
Let’s snack on some vegetable oil-free chocolate
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Hank delivers that wish-fulfillment smackdown speech to a college student with delusions of grandeur. He questions how good this kid could possibly be if he’s “here” at Railton, “Mediocrity’s capital.” But he also calls himself out and says, “I’m here!,” so “how much could I help you?” Does he resent himself even more than those he’s charged with educating? And how much of his misanthropy is inward and how much is outward?
BOB ODENKIRK: It’s 90 percent inward. [Laughs] Yeah, it’s all inside. It’s all his own frustration at himself for not being more important. His dad has this legendary status in the world of academia, which sounds like, who cares? But, of course, the people in academia care. And he’s nowhere near that level of status and he’ll never get there. He hasn’t helped himself because he should have written more, but he didn’t. He got swept up in life and he has all kinds of excuses, but he should have written more at this point. And he knows it. And he’s frustrated at himself.
The de-chairing and re-chairing of Hank was amusing and absurd. After everything that transpired in Saul, was it nice to have the stakes be so low as a de-chairing?
Oh yeah, it was great! There’s a lightness to this show. Of course, it is also a comedy much more than Better Call Saul was — as funny as Better Call Saul could be. There’s probably one or two sequences you can point to that were played for pure comedy. But this show is lighter. I love that about it. I wanted to go there and see if I could handle that and present that lightness in a way that was watchable and entertaining.
Now that he’s re-upped for three years, how many f— does he have to give?
It feels like he’s doomed. Whereas before he felt like, “I can get out of this anytime I want.” And in this case, they’re bumping him. He doesn’t even vote for himself, if you notice. So the fact that he doesn’t vote for himself tells you a lot about where his head is at: “This is going away. That’s fine. I don’t care.” When secretly he does care, because this has been his identity. And then he gets it handed back in his lap and it’s a three-year thing.
Which gets us thinking: What’s a more powerful force at play for Hank: self-loathing misery or inertia? Because those things seem very tied up in him.
I think inertia is what keeps him going. The misery — I noticed this is really not a choice I made, but how often the character kind of grunts and sighs and kind of does that exhale thing of like, “Ugh.” The logic in my mind was he has a distance and a bemusement at life that he insists is a personal choice of his, but it’s not. He’s scared of the ways in which he’s fallen short and the choices he might need to make to be braver and to do some dangerous things, scary things. He has avoided that and he’s just got tons of impacted feelings. [Laughs] And they’re coming out. And if you ever had a friend of yours who had depression or something, and they acted like, “Oh, I’m fine!” but you heard them sigh all the time? You’re like, “I don’t know if you know this, but you’re constantly sighing and you’re constantly making exertion noises.” But he’s not exerting himself. He’s just living. I think he’s got a lot of feelings inside that he hasn’t dealt with.
That’s exactly right! And honestly, I didn’t even know I was doing it, and I almost was going to ask them to go in audio and take those out… That’s what’s going on in this guy! He’s been holding all this s— inside him. The great thing is that in the course of eight episodes, I’m not saying he works everything out — he doesn’t — but there’s such a degree of transformation that I’m not used to in a TV show. And I really liked the growth. It’s not a ton of growth, but it’s more than you