Cynics are really frustrated idealists, according to Bob Odenkirk, and he’s playing one in the new AMC series ironically titled “Lucky Hank” — a show he jumped straight into after completing “Better Call Saul.” And not long after he’d had a heart attack.
Based on the novel “Straight Man” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo, “Lucky Hank” casts Odenkirk as Hank Devereaux, the reluctant, curmudgeonly chairman of the English department at Railton, a mediocre Pennsylvania institution. In Sunday’s premiere (7 p.m. Dish and DirecTV; 10 p.m. Comcast), Hank is goaded into telling a student he’s a mediocre no-talent, which causes an on-campus uproar.
To prove that student is not destined for great things, Hank points out that he is attending an undistinguished college being taught by his undistinguished self. And Hank seems to be in the middle of a midlife … well, later life crisis … with an outlook that seems entirely cynical.
The character is closer to who Odenkirk is, he said, than Jimmy/Saul on “Better Call Saul,” a role that brought him great acclaim and five best-actor Emmy nominations.
Odenkirk said he doesn’t “align perfectly” with Hank, “but his POV fits mine more” than Jimmy/Saul. And it was “tough” to play Saul because he was considerably younger than Odenkirk, both chronologically and “mentally.”
“He was truly a more innocent guy, even though he’s a scammer. He had a hope and an innocence to him that I think I left behind a long time ago,” Odenkirk said. " And this guy is more like me. He’s more cynical. He’s also an idealist, but that’s what a real cynic is, I think, deep inside.”
He wasn’t kidding: “Those people we identify as cynics are idealists whose feelings are hurt every single day by the world being not what they hoped it would be.”
That would explain a lot about Hank, who seems to affect an I-don’t-care attitude to cover up the fact that he cares a lot.
It’s a terrific role in a show that gets off to a strong start — a show that surrounds Hank with compelling, entertaining and engaging characters and focuses on the people more than the events.
And the supporting cast — playing mostly college faculty members, who are largely childish and petty — is great, including Diedrich Bader, Suzanne Cryer, Nancy Robertson and Cedric Yarbrough.
Co-showrunner Paul Lieberstein, who won a best-comedy Emmy showrunning “The Office” (and co-starred as Toby Flenderson) said he envisions the show as “The Office” with “smarter people.”
Mireille Enos is wonderful as Hank’s much put-upon wife. You may recall her from her lead role as an intense homicide detective in “The Killing,” or from her supporting role as polygamous, fundamentalist Mormon twins in “Big Love.” The latter was at least a bit ironic. Enos was raised a Latter-day Saint — her father converted her mother while he was a missionary, and she attended Brigham Young University. (She is no longer a practicing Latter-day Saint.)
The most unbelievable thing about “Hank” is the timing. Not a lot of actors go directly from the lead in one TV series to the lead in the other — particularly not when they had a heart attack while finishing up the first series.
Odenkirk said he was sent the “Hank” script during the final season of “Better Call Saul,” and he “liked it a lot. … I liked this guy. As crabby as he is, he loves his wife.” Whereas Saul was “really alone,” despite his troubled relationship with Kim (Rhea Seehorn), “I like that this guy loves his wife and she loves him. I liked that he loves his daughter and even though they fight, she loves him. I like the humor of him. He’s funny, and he knows he’s being funny. He’s making jokes all the time.”
Saul was “funny, at times, obviously, but he wasn’t aware of how funny he was,” Odenkirk said. “He wasn’t part of the joke. Whereas Hank gets to be the wisecracker and gets to laugh at his situation while he suffers it, too.”
Odenkirk suffered a serious heart attack in July 2021, while filming the final season of “Better Call Saul,” and returned to the set five weeks later. After finishing filming, doing promotion for the show and taking a short vacation with his family, Odenkirk jumped into filming “Lucky Hank.”
“It all happened very fast,” he said. But he felt like “Lucky Hank” was worth it. “It’s a gift if the network that’s making your show wants it — really wants it badly,” he said. “It’s a rare occurrence.”
He also didn’t let the success of “Saul” keep him from signing on to another series.
“I just don’t think you can sit around hoping to be perfect again,” Odenkirk said. “All you can do is read another project, and hold hands and jump off a cliff together.”
“Lucky Hank” is more than a leap of faith. It’s a heartfelt show about a guy you can’t help but like, despite the barriers he puts up. While the title of the series seems ironic, Odenkirk said it’s not.
“He is a lucky guy, as it turns out,” he said. “He may think he’s unlucky, but the more you watch it, the more you think, ‘Wow! You got lucky, man.’”
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.