AMC’s Lucky Hank stars Better Call Saul‘s Bob Odenkirk in a decidedly significant departure from his iconic character Saul Goodman. The series, based on the Richard Russo novel Straight Man, features Odenkirk as William Henry “Hank” Devereaux, Jr., an English department chairman stuck between a midlife crisis and a mental breakdown. Flagged early in the series for his apathetic approach to teaching, Hank navigates both his personal and university lives through a haze of depression and vague attempts to return to an active publishing career.
Editor Richard Schwadel builds on a career of editing and directing traditional sitcoms to deliver a delicate balance of drama and comedy in Lucky Hank. In fact, it was the darker side of humor that drew Schwadel to the project.
“I like its dark sense of humor. I like its acerbic tone. You know, shows about academia are tough to get an audience. I knew going in that that would probably probably be a challenge for the producers. So I felt a lot of pressure in that. I just wanted to keep it the comedy as snappy as possible, the drama as real as possible. Playing everything real for me is really important,” Schwadel explains. “Comedy plays best when it’s honest, and when it hits, you as a viewer think, ‘Yeah, I can relate to that.’ All of the principal creatives involved in this show are so good at doing that.”
With Lucky Hank, Schwadel initially partners with director Peter Farrelly (Green Book) to set the initial tone for the series. As filmmakers have increasingly moved from film to television over the past decade, the expectations on television crafts have become increasingly cinematic. Given Schwadel’s lengthy history in the sitcom world, he knew he could not cut Lucky Hank in the same manner. Following Farrelly’s initial cues, the first two episodes of the series boast a more comedic tone, one that Schwadel needed to highlight while also focusing on the large ensemble cast, particularly in the university sequences.
One early series sequence set during Hank’s removal and eventual re-election as department chair highlights the complexity of balancing the comedic elements of the series with the inclusive university cast. It’s a great sequence in which an amusing air of tension is fashioned through Schwadel’s expert editing.
“Sequences like that, they’re pretty dialogue driven. There’s very little action, obviously, so it’s a matter of keeping the pace up, letting certain lines land, and letting comedic beats land. When you have that many characters, you still have to keep them present,” Schwadel says. “So the challenge for me as an editor is if somebody has very few lines in a scene like that, then I need to find moments where they’re reacting to something funny or something where I can fit them in to the puzzle and make it feel natural like they’re still in the room and they’re part of what’s going on. Those types of scenes are cut a little bit faster than the more dramatic two handers.”
One of the most challenging sequences for Schwadel to construct lands at the end of episode two. Throughout the episode, Hank reluctantly interacts with long-time friend George Saunders. The undercurrent of the episode is a focus on Hank’s increasing insecurity as a middle-aged man. He believes Saunders, a celebrated author himself, considers Hank a terrible writer. However, Saunders reveals his deep admiration of Hank’s last novel shortly before a heavily attended Saunders interview that Hank will conduct.
The sequence doubles down on Odenkirk’s seemingly effortless performance and incredible chemistry with Brian Huskey (Saunders). Shocked and likely deeply moved by the revelation, it appears initially that Hank will not join his friend onstage. When he eventually does take his seat, he stammers when trying to kick start the session. He eventually pulls it together, launching what surely must be a fascinating conversation that we see only glimpses of through a musical montage.
That sequence proved to be one of the most challenging to get right, according to Schwadel.
“Building that sequence was really difficult. The backstage part was easy because it was pretty straightforward — dialogue between two people. But once Saunders leaves him, the question was how long are we staying on Hank? Is there going to be any voice over here because there’s voiceover throughout the series,” Schwadel recalls. “Initially, I didn’t know how to really cut it because it was just described in the script that they have some back and forth, then the audience applauds, and we’re on to the next scene. Peter shot maybe a half an hour of material of them just bullshitting back and forth that was really unscripted. I tried many, many times to do different versions and get the feel of this thing. I got the backstage part no problem, but once I got them on stage, I felt like I never nailed it.”
Schwadel only “nailed it” after walking away from the scene to let it breathe. A close collaboration with Farrelly helped shape it even more. The team eventually decided to go down the musical montage route with bits and pieces of dialogue weaved into the back and forth between Odenkirk and Huskey. It was an unexpectedly challenging moment that, to Schwadel, proves that sometimes moments of dialogue, faces, and emotions can be as challenging to cut as a high-tech action sequence.
Sometimes, it’s far more rewarding too.
Lucky Hank‘s first season finale will air May 7 on AMC. You can catch up on the entire first season on AMC+.