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Lucky Hank EPs on Generation Clashes and When a Dream Job Becomes a Prison

Paul Lieberstein and Aaron Zelman explore entitlement and disappointment in this melancholy new series.
  • Bob Odenkirk is Lucky Hank (Photo: Sergei Bachlakov/AMC)
    Bob Odenkirk is Lucky Hank (Photo: Sergei Bachlakov/AMC)

    It wouldn't be quite apt to describe Hank Devereaux Jr., the fiftysomething protagonist of AMC's Lucky Hank, as being in the throes of a midlife crises when we first meet him. That would imply a level of resistance that Hank, played by Bob Odenkirk in his follow-up to Better Call Saul, is mostly incapable of mustering at this point in his life. But only moments into Sunday's premiere episode, Hank snaps out of his complacent haze long enough to rip an undergrad's short story to shreds, creating a cascade of shifts and rifts that go well beyond his own personal and professional lives.

    As the title suggests, Hank is certainly better off than most — he has tenure at a public university in Pennsylvania and an accomplished wife (Mireille Enos as Lily Devereaux) — though that's not enough to keep feelings of disappointment at bay. But does Hank feel let down by others, or does he think he's let them down? That's one of many questions that executive producers Paul Lieberstein (The Office) and Aaron Zelman (Damages) set out to explore in this melancholic new series based on Richard Russo's 1997 novel Straight Man. The two TV veterans are well aware of how often midlife crises have been mined for both humor and pathos, but they see that as proof of how relatable their premise is, regardless of income bracket. Who hasn't wanted more out of life or wondered if they were good enough? 

    At the Television Critics Association Winter 2023 press tour, Primetimer had the chance to speak with Lieberstein and Zelman about disappointments, generational divide, the pressure of being part of Bob Odenkirk's Better Call Saul follow-up, and how even a dream job can become confining. 

    Primetimer: You each had an interest in the world that Richard Russo created in his book. How did you merge your visions for the show? 

    Aaron Zelman: Paul [Lieberstein] and I always talked about how this show represents the Venn diagram of our interests and writing style, and where they meet. It was honestly a lot of push and pull. There still can be sometimes, but we've certainly come a long way. But in the beginning, yeah, we thought "What is this? Is it a workplace comedy? is it more about his family life?" And the interesting thing is that process yielded this unique mix, and it's all there. There are episodes that you'll see are a little bit more heavily focused on family, and there are other episodes that are a little more focused on the work, but we wanted to include his whole life. And I think we do that.

    Paul Lieberstein: When we started it, we were both unsure exactly what it was going to be. We have hour-long episodes that are very dramatic. We had half hours that were just all very light and jokes and everything in between, until we settled on what felt right to us.

    PT: You describe the show as a "unique mix," and you definitely have distinct sensibilities. Paul comes from the world of sitcoms, and Aaron, you have this background in procedurals. Although, I have to say, Damages could be very funny, too.

    AZ: Yeah. Thank you for saying that, because people sometimes don't say that. Yeah, we laughed our asses off all the time. The Ted Danson stuff was so funny to us.

    PT: But aside from tone and content, you also had to combine different approaches to telling larger stories — comedies are generally more episodic, while dramas tend to be more serialized. Were you guided by Russo's book, which features more slice-of-life storytelling, or was it the desire to buck the convention of increasingly serialized TV?

    AZ: How would you describe it, Paul?

    PL: Yeah, it's not a soap, and it's not really a mystery or anything like that — I think anyone can come in and enjoy an episode on its own without knowing. You could watch Episode 5 and enjoy it just fine without knowing what happened before.

    AZ: It's not like, "Oh my God, I missed this huge plot point of whatever, someone's kidnapped." You don't have to worry about that.

    PL: We have stories that are contained, but they build on each other and they deepen each other and reference each other.

    AZ: Like Paul was saying, there is an arc over the eight episodes, but there's also an episodic sort of stories within each one that you can follow from beginning to end that have, hopefully, a satisfying little argument themselves.

    PT: The book came out in 1997, so a lot has changed since. Were there some things that you knew couldn't be updated that you had to leave in the book? And conversely, were there some elements or characters you were very excited to keep in the adaptation?

    AZ: Yeah, I mean, we've taken a lot of liberties. It's not the book, you can't beat a book. Lucky Hank is a TV show, so you have to make a lot of choices, a lot of updating. The English department [in the show] is much more diverse and I think it was almost all white men in the– but that's just not what English departments look like anymore. But also there were certain things — about the character especially — that we were like, "No, this is the character. We're not going to change who he is. He's a guy who's experiencing things that are timeless. It doesn't matter."

    PT: Do you see this as a generation clash story? The premiere episode seems to be setting that up, but then it branches off into multiple other directions.

    PL: Well, I think we intended to do more of that than we actually did. If we get a Season 2, I think we'll probably be exploring a lot more of that. The season kind of took over. It kind of, I don't know, sounds really — I hate people  who say, "It told us where it was going to go."

    AZ: "The characters talked to us."

    PL: But we found we had to go a certain way after awhile to get at Hank and to get at what we wanted to do. But I hope we get a chance to go back there.

    PT: Is Railton supposed to be a private school?

    AZ: No, it's a publicly funded state school. It's based on — we won't tell you what it's based on [laughs] — but there are a few models that we have in our heads. What's interesting about that is they are dependent upon the legislature of the state for their funding. So there's an interesting dynamic, which is played throughout the season, of lobbying the legislature for more money, or in some cases some people want less money.

    PT: There's so much potential in a show about a public school, whether it's a university or high school or grade school, as we've seen with Abbott Elementary. Lily's job as a vice principal at a high school offers an opportunity to explore that, so will there be a similar discussion in Lucky Hank

    AZ: One of the things that we always say is we never wanted this to be an issues show. Really, to us, it was more about following these characters and what the demands of them are in terms of how they just want to live their lives. We weren't really interested in exploring that. There's a lot of that on network TV, shows like The Good Fight, and they do it well. I was on Law & Order for four years — that's all issues, which I loved. This is not that. We were very clearly not going– we didn't want to do that. We wanted to focus on, they're professors and there are things unique about that, but everybody who has any workplace experience could hopefully relate.

    PL: Yeah. And so with Lily, it was about seeing her as just a person, and her life — she's gotten to a new place once her child has grown, and she's faced with the decisions that she made a long time ago. I think many people in their forties or fifties are saying, "Did I make a decision for my whole life back then?" And I think she's starting to say, "What's next?" And that's where we find her.

    AZ: Oh, I was just going to add that that's something that we are experiencing in our own lives. That we really wanted to write about our own lives and our friends and the kind of issues that develop around this age when you're married. I think that's kind of underexplored.

    PT: There's a tendency in TV or film to represent the beginning and the end of a relationship, but this is very much about the middle.

    AZ: Yes. This is the middle. 

    PT: As you explore Hank and Lily's relationship, will we see any tension come from the fact that she's an administrator at her school and Hank is more of the person railing against the administration at his school? 

    PL: At one point. There's a moment.

    AZ: There is a moment, isn't there?

    PL: [Laughs.] Yeah, there's one moment. 

    AZ: I would say, yeah. [Laughs.]

    PL: But it's not the heart of their tension.

    AZ: But it definitely defines their characters a little bit, because there's a kind of anti-authoritarian streak in him, which we feel like is related to his relationship with the father and a lot of things. She probably has less of that, but it may be reflected sometimes in their work.

    PT: We heard a bit in the panel from Bob [Odenkirk] about what it was like for this to be his follow-up show. Did you feel the same kind of pressure?

    PL: I would say we feel the pressure being the follow-up to our own careers and lives — like, this is it. I feel even more pressure than Bob because Bob's going to be fine. If this goes down, he'll be fine. [Laughs.] He's incredibly well respected and we'll take the hit.

    PT: There are obviously these comic beats throughout, but what I felt watching it was this really heavy sense of disappointment.

    AZ: [Laughs.] I love that.

    PL: "A heavy sense of disappointment." That's awesome.

    PT: Sorry, I mean, Hank's disappointment in his own life.

    AZ: No, we get it.

    PT: It's clear he's grown up in the shadow of his own dad, who is this towering figure in criticism. And after this whole debacle with a student, Hank ends the premiere basically where he started. How do you grapple with those feelings of disappointment and inertia? Also, that's great for the more dramatic parts of your show, but how does it feed into the comedy?

    PL: That is such a good question. That's at the heart of it. That's really at the heart of this character, is the push between his inertia and his willingness to do something about his life to make it better, where he's just not [going to]. And the reasons behind that inertia and the reasons behind why he can't take a step forward and why he feels so trapped. That's who he is. 

    PT: Lily tells Hank at the end of the premiere, "I forgot that you were never going to leave this town." Is his inertia rooted in a place? Are we going to see more of the town to get a better understanding of that?

    PL: I don't get into the town too much, but we will definitely explore this idea that it's not possible for him to really make, say, a lateral move in a way that is for so many other people. A tenured professor at this type of school doesn't get another tenured English department someplace else. They would hire a new young graduate student and he wouldn't be touched. So for him to leave, he's got to completely give up everything. He's not going to teach anymore. And so yeah, that's one of his obstacles.

    AZ: It's one of those towns where probably, I don't know what percentage, but most of it is centered around the university school. So the school is the town, in a sense. 

    PL: It was such a score when [Hank] got this job — when he was in the late twenties, he probably couldn't have been happier about getting this job and then it became a prison.

    PT: I think a lot of us know that feeling.

    PL: We definitely do. That's one of the reasons we wanted to do this.

    AZ: Yeah. You look back and you go, "How did I get here again?"

    PT: I was struck by the different types and moments of entitlement. On the one hand, you have Hank, who feels so comfortable in his tenured job, and on the other, there are these students asking for a kind of emotional support that may be an inordinate ask of an educator. How deep are you going to dig into that, and how will it play out over the season?

    AZ: Well, that's the title, right? Is he lucky? He's lucky if he thinks he's lucky. Isn't that the trick of life? You can always, given your situation, feel good about it or not so good about it. So that gets at the heart of what entitlement is, right? I think those are the psychological issues of the show.

    This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

    New episodes of Lucky Hank stream at 3:01am ET on AMC+ and air Sundays at 9:00 PM ET on AMC. Join the discussion about the show in our forums

    Danette Chavez is the Editor-in-Chief of Primetimer and its biggest fan of puns.

    TOPICS: Lucky Hank, Aaron Zelman, Bob Odenkirk, Paul Lieberstein