The producers of the new AMC series “Lucky Hank” say they’re thrilled to be able to base their show on Richard Russo’s novel “Straight Man.”

They’re also a little bit scared.

“We both love Richard Russo, and this book is full of amazing characters, well drawn out and hilarious,” said Aaron Zelman, who is producing and writing the show with Paul Lieberstein.

“But taking on something you love is also terrifying. You could mess it up,” added Lieberstein.

“Lucky Hank” debuted March 19 on AMC with Bob Odenkirk in the starring role, and so far, critics think the show is worth watching. The 1997 novel and the show focus on the midlife crisis of William Henry Devereaux Jr., the English department chair at a small, academically mediocre state university in Pennsylvania. Writing in the New York Times, TV critic James Poniewozik called it “disarmingly funny,” while Brian Tallerico from said it’s well-acted and that “Odenkirk always delivers.”

Bob Odenkirk in “Lucky Hank,” which debuted March 19 on AMC. It’s based on the Richard Russo novel “Straight Man.” Photo by Sergei Bachlakov/AMC

Odenkirk has helped bring the show publicity, going directly from his critically acclaimed star turn in the drama “Better Call Saul,” which wrapped up in 2022, to this show. Before that, he was in the hit “Breaking Bad,” making this his third AMC show in a row. The second episode of “Lucky Hank” is scheduled to air at 9 p.m. Sunday on AMC, with a total of eight episodes slated to run this season.


The show also stars Mireille Enos as Hank’s wife and Suzanne Cryer, Diedrich Bader and Cedric Yarbrough as fellow teachers.

Russo, who lives in Portland, is not giving interviews about the show. He’s said that, since he sold the rights, the story is now in other writers’ hands, and he doesn’t want to take the “spotlight” away from them.

Both Zelman and Lieberstein are used to the spotlight, having worked on major TV shows in the past. Zelman’s writing credits include “The Killing” on AMC, “Damages” on FX and “Law & Order” on NBC. Lieberstein was a writer on the NBC comedy “The Office” and played the put-upon human resources manager Toby as well.

In a conference call for this story, Zelman and Lieberstein said they had been interested in developing Russo’s book “for a long time,” because of its characters and because of the way it blends hilarious, over-the-top situations with somber and darker human conflicts. They both are big fans of Russo’s body of work, including his novels that showcase class conflicts in depressed, gritty mill towns, like “Mohawk,” “Nobody’s Fool” and “Empire Falls.”

They said that while “Straight Man” has that element too – set in a depressed railroad town – it can also be seen as a workplace comedy, since everyone involved works at the college.

Two of Russo’s books have already been made into movies, but this is the first to be made into a TV series. “Nobody’s Fool” was made in 1994 and starred Paul Newman, Jessica Tandy, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith, while “Empire Falls” was a two-part movie for HBO in 2005, starring Newman, Ed Harris, Joanne Woodward, Robin Wright, Aidan Quinn and Helen Hunt. The latter was set in Maine and filmed here, mostly in Waterville and Skowhegan. But Russo has said all of his mill town books, including “Empire Falls,” are really based mostly on his hometown of Gloversville, New York.


Russo wrote the screenplay for “Empire Falls” himself and was nominated for an Emmy.  “Nobody’s Fool” was adapted by director Robert Benton, who was nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay.

Zelman and Lieberstein said part of their interest in “Straight Man” was that it had not been filmed yet and that it seemed to lend itself better to a TV show than a one-off film.

“It’s less defined by the story then by the characters, it’s a world of its own,” said Zelman.

Richard Russo Photo by Barbara Russo

“Straight Man” is also funnier than most of Russo’s books – although “Nobody’s Fool” and “Everybody’s Fool” have very funny moments – but there are some heavy topics explored as well. So the casting of Odenkirk was a bonus for the producers. Before he starred in the edgy dramas “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” Odenkirk wrote comedy. He was a writer for NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” in the late 1980s and on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” also on NBC. He starred in the HBO sketch comedy show “Mr. Show” from 1995 to 1998.

“His background is really ideal for this, because his comedy chops are for real and his experience over the last 10 years has honed his sense of drama,” said Lieberstein. “I don’t know who else has that combination of experience. ”

“Straight Man” is likely to translate well into a TV series for a variety of reasons, said Kathleen Drowne, author of the book “Understanding Richard Russo” and an English professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology.


First, there are some very physical comedic moments. There’s a donkey basketball game, Hank’s fight with a goose, and his crawling through an air duct, though it’s not certain all of those will be in the show. But there’s also the fact that much of the book is told through Hank’s inner thoughts, which can be heard during scenes in the show as well, while other characters are talking or interacting around him.

“It’s a funny story but there are serious things too, like growing older and family,” said Drowne. “So they can show the funny moments, and you can still hear Hank’s thoughts about the serious issues.”

Mireille Enos as Lily and Bob Odenkirk as Hank in “Lucky Hank.” Photo by Sergei Bachlakov/AMC

In the first two episodes of “Lucky Hank,” the writers seem to be sticking to the book’s story. Odenkirk’s Hank is seen dealing with the pressure of being a famous English professor’s son while railing against his college and his students for their mediocrity, in his eyes. He’s also about to be ousted as a chair of the department, with lots of interoffice politics afoot.

Russo was an English professor himself, including at state schools. He has said much of the material for “Straight Man” about how a college English department functions – or doesn’t – came from his time teaching at Southern Illinois University and Southern Connecticut State University. He also taught at Colby College in Waterville, which is why he and his family moved to Maine more than 30 years ago, but he quit teaching in the mid-’90s to write full time.

He did base one character on a colleague at Colby, who was known at staff meetings for often correcting and chastising people when they used a male pronoun. So if somebody said “he,” this department member would say, “or she,” Russo recalled. The character in the book is Campbell “Orshee” Wheemer. In the show, the character has become Emma Wheemer.

“Lucky Hank” is set in the present day, even though Russo’s own teaching experiences that inspired the book happened more than 25 years ago. Talking about the possibility of a series based on “Straight Man” during a Maine Voices Live Waterville event in 2021, Russo said he thought the peculiar and funny workings of a college English department could be easily updated.

“The academic lunacy, it needs to be updated a little, but it’s still there. It’s still a feature of English departments,” Russo said.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: