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Media Review: April 2020

Lodge 49
Created by Jim Gavin
Produced by American Movie Classics, Touchy Feely Films, Byrnesy, Ocko & Company, and AMC Studios
Season one released August 2018
Season two released August 2019

Given the high noise-to-signal ratio in today’s TV landscape, genre fans can be forgiven for overlooking the magnificent Lodge 49. Still, its obscurity is tragic, because it’s an unheralded gem, a moving, funny, heartfelt slice of quirky Southern California magic realism. Its wistful stories present a sympathetic, astute critique of the ongoing death of the American Dream, and while this gives the show sad, serious undertones, it also has magic, mythology, humor, and hope, which ultimately make it a delightful, uplifting watch.

The primary protagonist of Lodge 49 is Sean “Dud” Dudley (Wyatt Russell), a carefree beach bum who’s fallen on hard times. In the course of a year, he and his workaholic sister Liz (Sonya Cassidy) have lost nearly everything. Dud’s resorted to a hardscrabble existence: living out of his car, racking up debt with a loan shark, and pining for the days of yesteryear. He used to have it all, which for him wasn’t even all that much: a passion for surfing, a steady job cleaning pools, a happy life hanging with his dad and his sister. Circumstances stole this perfect life, leaving him floundering, but underneath Dud’s deadbeat struggle is a fundamental core of optimism. He’s convinced he’ll find his way back from the darkness, and one day while beach-combing, he stumbles across an unlikely new hope: a ring from the Order of the Lynx. Shortly after finding it, fate delivers him to the door of the Lynx’s Lodge 49, an unassuming building he’s driven past hundreds of times and never noticed. He seizes on the lodge as his salvation, fascinated with the notion of joining a “secret fraternal order” that will steer him down a new life path. (Oh, the lodge is neither secret nor fraternal—but for Dud, it’ll do.)

Running parallel to Dud’s journey is the story of Ernie Fontaine (Brent Jennings), a hard-luck plumbing supplies salesman who’s also a member of the Order. Ernie’s facing his own demons: pushing sixty with little to show for his efforts, he’s in love with another man’s wife and has piled up his own reckless debts. But Ernie, too, is a dreamer of sorts, with an inner drive that launches him on a quest to find a mysterious SoCal real estate developer known only as “the Captain.” Ernie’s objective: landing the Holy Grail of plumbing-supply contracts. He’s also next in line to become Lodge 49’s “Sovereign Protector,” impatiently awaiting his chance to ascend to the throne. Indeed, the Order is Ernie’s refuge, and may be his one chance to be in charge and make a mark on the world. Unfortunately, the lodge’s gracelessly aging leader Larry Loomis (Kenneth Welsh) has a habit of constantly cheating death to defer succession, which leaves Ernie feeling like one of life’s also-rans.

These two dreamers—upbeat, naive Dud and hopeful, skeptical Ernie—are destined to come together at Lodge 49. It couldn’t be a more mundane place, a grungy old social club for Long Beach’s aimlessly aging lower-middle class. The Order has a storied history, a Watcher’s Council-like headquarters in London, and lodges all over the world, with “secret society” lore purportedly based on the lost teachings of alchemy. Ernie has no illusions as to the truth of these quasi-mystical origins; he thinks they’re fun stories that give the place character. But Dud, whose cheery fascination proves catchy, becomes a true believer in the Order’s mythos, so much so that some of his fellow Lynx start to believe the lodge is “waking up” to its magical past.

Lodge 49 is a wiggly, interstitial show that doesn’t dazzle you with flashy science fictional components. But if SF content is a must for your TV watch list, it’s well worth a look, laced with subtle spec-fic delights. Inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, it’s a restless, slippery show full of cosmic coincidences and kooky conspiracies, infusing its bland trappings with delightful glimmers of hidden magic. Its Long Beach couldn’t be more ordinary, so down-to-Earth you can practically feel the gravity. But the scripts are so meticulously structured and lovingly executed that, when occasional visual flourishes suggest there may be otherworldly forces at work, the place sings with unlikely mystique. Every corner of the show’s world feels inhabited, real, and integral, whether it’s the dingy strip mall where Dud hangs out, the sleazy sports bar where Liz works, the slowly dying nearby aerospace plant, or the lodge itself. Somehow, though, these diminished or forgotten places are also charged with quiet meaning and importance. They’re emblems of American promise, stabs at the better life we’ve all been programmed to strive for and believe to be possible. They may be dim shadows of their former selves, perhaps, but they mattered once, and could matter again, if only the stars would line up. Lodge 49’s magic is hope.

The story’s characters are profoundly shaped by this American mythos. These are normal folks with lives full of struggle, loss, and failure, but none of them are throwaway characters. Everyone, from Dud right down to the smallest walk-on cameo, orbits the scenario in a clever, intentional way, leading to comical “aha” moments as familiar faces make out-of-context appearances. This generates a delightful interconnectedness to the backdrop. Meanwhile, a litany of fantasy tropes—quests, secret societies, ancient lore, bizarre visions, animal visitations—is quietly layered atop the mundane surface, making it one of those quiet speculative stories that shows its characters finding magic lurking just under the surface of daily life. (I was reminded of the contemporary fantasy novels of James P. Blaylock and Tim Powers, who similarly lace their zany California settings with quirky magic.)

The Order of the Lynx is pregnant with lore, and so is the show, rife with symbols and connections and metaphors, many of them centered on the subliminal mythologies of America. A recurring theme, for example, shows the characters struggling to parse the authenticity or fraudulence of their opportunities, those everyday, get-ahead assumptions of the capitalist patriarchy. Idealistic visions are challenged, victories are Pyrrhic, institutions are hollow, legendary personalities are revealed as mundane hucksters. The world view is cynical, perhaps—how could it not be, these days?—but uncovering the world’s fraudulence has a silver lining: It shows our heroes what really matters.

The narrative strategy around gender is shrewd and purposeful. The benevolent but ineffectual men of Lodge 49 exude confidence in their expertise, even as their self-possession is often challenged, if not shattered, by harsh reality. For example, look to Blaise St. John (a delightful David Pasquesi), the lodge’s philosophical bartender, who is excited by Dud’s enthusiasm and finds himself digging deeper into the Order’s past to search for alchemical truths. There’s also Scott Wright (Eric Allan Kramer), a chronically frustrated officer of the harbor patrol who sees himself as a legitimate candidate to be the next Sovereign Protector. These two, like Dud and Ernie, exemplify the baked-in “manifest destiny” of male ambition, and they’re in for a rude awakening; the world they were promised doesn’t deliver, forcing them to search for new meaning and self worth.

And what of the women? Lodge 49’s focus isn’t nearly as strong, here, but what it does present is astute, mindful counterpoint. While the men tilt at windmills, looking to shape the future, the women exist wholly in the present, struggling with daily realities often defined by the entitled decision-making of blinkered men. This thematic track is anchored by Sonya Cassidy in a terrific, crucial performance as Dud’s sister Liz. Nobody is more alert to the frauds of the world than Liz, who shills deep-fried food to ogling men in a “breastaurant.” While Dud pines for his cheerful, departed father, Liz is dutifully paying off the massive debt that she inherited from him, a legacy of lies and servitude. She isn’t afforded the luxury of dreaming that Dud, Ernie, and the boys take for granted. She has to keep her head in the game just to survive. The same is true for Ernie’s lover Connie (played with winning spirit by Linda Emond). Awkwardly caught between two men, Connie is watching her journalism career wither and her health deteriorate, a state of affairs that prevents her from looking ahead to the next moment, let alone a deeper future. Lodge 49’s women may be on the sidelines, but the show is both aware of and thematically deliberate about that. It’s all part of the greater critique.

Fortunately, there’s plenty to keep this deep subject matter from getting too dark. The gloom is mitigated by the characters’ upbeat defiance of their grim circumstances. The show’s crafty, unpredictable sense of humor isn’t afraid to build up and then dismantle profound moments, or spin out wildly into zany antics, or seed the mise en scène with comical callbacks and improbable conceptual continuity. A brilliant, energetic roster of guest stars—Bruce Campbell, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Atkins Estimond, Paul Giamatti, Cheech Marin, Vik Sahay, Olivia Sandoval, Daniel Stewart Sherman, and David Ury among them—pop in to present new challenges and plot turns, refining the themes and our heroes’ lessons. But perhaps most important to the upbeat tone is that the writers are sympathetic to their characters, making their struggles relatable and silently rooting for them along the way. After all, these people are merely trying to exist in our flawed world, which has conditioned them with toxic expectations. As they awaken to the deceptions codified into society, they gradually find their way to each other—in the lodge, where, as Ernie notes during a moving speech in the final episode, “in here, when we’re all together, it’s different.” It is a beautiful, earned moment that pays off twenty exceptional episodes of build.

Lodge 49 was cancelled after its second year, unable, perhaps, to overcome low-concept marketing challenges. But a short-lived run seems appropriate, somehow; like Larry, ever on death’s door, it seemed to know that its journey couldn’t last forever. In the end, this may just contribute to its cult notoriety, because it almost perfectly executes its unique mission. The first season is a masterpiece, and season two isn’t far off the mark, with the sixth episode, “Circles,” really standing out; it may be one of the loveliest episodes of TV ever produced. The finale sends the show off in beautiful, hopeful, and appropriately oddball fashion. Lodge 49 may not land for everyone, but its target audience will find it an absolute joy.

Christopher East

Christopher East is a writer, editor, reviewer, and avid consumer of science fiction, fantasy, and spy fiction. His stories have been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Cosmos, Interzone, Talebones, The Third Alternative, and a number of other speculative fiction publications. He’s attended the Clarion and Taos Toolbox writing workshops, and served for several years as the fiction editor for the futurism, science, and technology blog Futurismic. He blogs extensively about writing, fiction, film, television, music, comics, and more at www.christopher-east.com. Currently he lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works for an occupational and environmental health and safety consultancy.