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The Late Great

Lodge 49 Was a Hangout Comedy Like No Other

It seems fitting for Jim Gavin's series to remain a shibboleth shared by a few in the know, like the Order of the Lynx.
  • Sonya Cassidy, Wyatt Russell, Long Nguyen, and Celia Au in Lodge 49 (Photo: Everett Collection)
    Sonya Cassidy, Wyatt Russell, Long Nguyen, and Celia Au in Lodge 49 (Photo: Everett Collection)

    In The Late Great, Primetimer staffers and contributors revisit shows that were cut short but still cast a long shadow over the TV landscape.

    The trend has many names: "cozy,” “comfy” or “comfort,” “nicecore.” Whatever you want to call it, in recent years, there’s been a preponderance of television that emphasizes good feelings over high-stakes storylines. It’s not as if they’re devoid of tension or darkness, but series like Ted Lasso and Abbott Elementary are praised and popular mainly for their overwhelming pleasantness. I would argue that this inclination is also part of the reason for the success of The Bear, believe it or not. While it is full of suspense and stress, many of that show’s most lauded moments happen when it slows down — think of Season 2's “Honeydew,” which focuses on a character quietly honing his skills as a baker, or the lovely, empathetic conversation that closes “Forks.” 

    But the best of these shows remains AMC’s Lodge 49, which deftly threaded several needles at once. It was a series with a remarkable generosity toward human beings that never shied away from the uglier elements of life. It generated a good deal of compelling conflicts without ever positioning any one character as particularly villainous. It entertained an overarching plot about decades-old conspiracies with a mischievous attitude toward the whole concept of myth arcs, and it never strayed far from a languid vibe. It was wonderfully acted, intelligently written, and often very funny. And it only lasted two seasons before getting canceled. Audiences simply weren’t yet receptive to what it was trying to do.

    Lodge 49 follows a constellation of characters orbiting the Long Beach chapter of an Elks Lodge-style society called the Order of the Lynx. Sean Dudley, or “Dud” (Wyatt Russell in his best role to date, incandescent in his stubborn optimism), is the order’s newest member, conspicuously younger than its mostly middle-aged ranks. He’s brought in by Ernie (Brent Jennings, one of many diligent longtime character actors whom the show gave a chance to excel in a lead role), who initially just wants to scam Dud out of money but soon warms to him. Dud’s twin sister, Liz (Sonya Cassidy), is struggling to pay off their late father’s debts, languishing in a dead-end waitressing job and tempted to climb the corporate ladder, which would be more appealing if the company in question wasn’t a massive scam about to collapse. And then there are the workaday schmoes, wannabe scammers, slackers, and at least one modern-day alchemist.

    Under the aegis of creator Jim Gavin and showrunner Peter Ocko, Lodge 49 pulled off some of the most impressive tonal balancing ever seen on television. It treated grim subjects in a way that made them go down easy — or, if you prefer, it flavored a lighthearted concept with the kind of grittiness that stopped things from ever being cloying. That atmosphere perfectly fit Long Beach, a city on the periphery of the Los Angeles megalopolis that feels ensconced from its noise, home to both heavy industry and a gorgeous waterfront, embodying both the suburban and SoCal surfer cultures. The show is firmly in the tradition of television set in the vicinity of LA but distinctly not spiritually of that town, a ripe milieu for high concepts and offbeat approaches — think Weeds, Santa Clarita Diet, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and of course Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

    That setting is also a recurrent point of reference for acclaimed author Thomas Pynchon, whose work the show nods to, most obviously in its title’s tribute to The Crying of Lot 49. But it isn’t strewn with Easter eggs the way that, say, Fargo shouts out the work of the Coen Brothers. Rather, Gavin and the other writers (including Charles Yu, another postmodern novelist) ably conjure the sense of low-level bafflement in Pynchon’s works.

    In the same way that the protagonist of The Crying of Lot 49 stumbles upon an ancient conspiracy embedded in the United States postal system (or she might be succumbing to delusion), the members of Lynx Lodge 49 learn that there are secret chambers and passages in their headquarters, a “true lodge” that gatekeeps forbidden alchemical knowledge, and somewhere scrolls that record the formula for making infinite money. Or maybe not. The show wrings a lot of fun out of the faux-seriousness of fraternal orders with the possibility that this one might unwittingly be dealing with something actually important.

    Lodge 49 both is and isn’t a mystery box show in the vein of Lost. There is an overarching plot concerning the “true lodge,” the scrolls, etc., but the series also continually asserts that none of these things are really important. The relationships between the characters — Dud and Ernie’s growing friendship, Dud and Liz together coming to terms with their father’s death, even more minor ones like Liz’s frenemy-ship with her Elizabeth-Holmes-like boss — are the true crux of each episode. Conspiracism and quests are easy ways out of the uncomfortable boredom and mundane anxieties of the real world. (But because the show never stops having fun with it, maybe the theories are all true, and something more mystical is at play.)

    The mystery is a MacGuffin, and it’s important that the allure of the scrolls is that they’ll supposedly facilitate immediate wealth. Among other things, this is one of the most honest depictions of Great Recession America ever put on TV. Ernie is driven by worries over his declining ability to get results as a salesman of plumbing equipment. One of Dud’s odd jobs as a temp is organizing employment termination files in an empty office building. In one of the show’s more harrowing moments, Liz finally gets her debt erased by offering the bank every cent she has and matter-of-factly telling a representative that, since she can’t ever hope to pay it off, if they don’t accept that payment, she’ll just kill herself. Economic desperation is the background radiation of Lodge 49. And yet the vibes are firmly positive most of the time.

    Lodge 49 navigates this darkness with an unshakable love for its characters, who are all allowed to be heavily flawed and nuanced without ever dissipating its essential sympathy for them. The show also featured one of the more underrated, deeply compassionate works about grief in recent years. Dud and Liz’s father’s death (probably by suicide, though this is never 100% confirmed) hangs over both of them. In one episode, Ernie reveals that he has been nursing the hurt of losing his young daughter for many years, and opens up about it to Dud in a beautiful scene, where he’s finally able to say her name aloud for the first time in a long time. 

    The Season 2 episode “Circles” features flashbacks detailing the backstory of former Lodge 49 leader Larry. It turns out his mother was tied to the scrolls and many of the Lodge’s secrets. But despite all these revelations, the real point is how she makes sacrifices to keep caring for him, as he was deeply troubled by his experiences fighting in Vietnam. In a scene I haven’t ever been able to shake, the episode ends with her rushing into his bedroom to comfort him amid a PTSD-induced nightmare.

    Given how “cozy” TV really took off less than a year after Lodge 49 was canceled, one wonders whether it might have finally found its audience if it had been given just a little bit more time. The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown might have been what lit the match on the craze, with audiences starved for entertainment that could help them unwind in an upsetting world. But perhaps it simply never was meant to be a popular show. It seems most appropriate for Lodge 49 to remain a shibboleth shared by a few in the know, like the Order of the Lynx. Those in on the secret have something they can treasure together, united even in the disappointment of the series ending so prematurely.

    Dan Schindel is a former associate editor at Hyperallergic. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

    TOPICS: Lodge 49, AMC, Brent Jennings, Jim Gavin, Peter Ocko, Sonya Cassidy, Wyatt Russell