lodge 49

Lodge 49 Wants to Be the ‘Least Aspirational Show on TV’

Wyatt Russell in Lodge 49.
Wyatt Russell in Lodge 49. Photo: Michael Moriatis/AMC

In the era of Peak TV, when a powerful hook has never been more important to grabbing people’s attention, AMC’s Lodge 49 stands out by being quiet. It’s a show that foregrounds mood over plot; binge-friendly story beats or artificial cliffhangers are nowhere to be found. Its deliberate pacing allows not just for characters to organically develop or individual moments to cement in the imagination, but also for a feeling to take root. That feeling lies at the intersection of community, long-term grief, a pervasive alienation befitting our cultural climate, and a spiritual magic that lies just out of reach. Though Lodge 49 is technically a “hangout show,” that description doesn’t quite do justice to what it offers. It extends a sense of belonging for those who have always had trouble finding their niche.

That lofty exegesis admittedly doesn’t explain what Lodge 49 is “about,” an idea that AMC has embraced in the teaser trailers for its second season, which premieres tonight. (Each trailer cheekily presents the show in different genres: A-Team-esque action series, one-size-fits-all medical drama, daytime soap.) Set in Long Beach, California, Lodge 49 follows Sean “Dud” Dudley (Wyatt Russell), an ex-surfer suffering from a debilitating snake bite and reeling from his father’s mysterious death, as he serendipitously joins a fraternal order known as the Ancient and Benevolent Order of the Lynx. He’s welcomed into the order by “Luminous Knight” and plumbing salesman Ernie Fontaine (Brent Jennings), who teaches him the traditions of the Lynx and gives him a key to Lodge 49, their meeting place. Though the Lodge primarily serves as a communal space for its members, Dud connects with the order’s complex mythology, which involves alchemy and secret scrolls and centuries-old philosophy. It provides him acceptance in an otherwise rudderless existence.

Series creator Jim Gavin and showrunner Peter Ocko describe Lodge 49 as a contemporary Arthurian fable. Dud, the squire, meets Ernie, the knight, and the two of them embark on a quest to save the Lodge. The analog extends to other characters in their immediate sphere: Liz (Sonya Cassidy), Dud’s sister who has been saddled with their father’s debt, is the “witch” who’s been cursed with a financial burden; Larry Loomis (Kenneth Walsh), the Lodge’s former Sovereign Protector, is the fallen king; Blaze (David Pasquesi), the resident alchemy expert, plays the Merlin role. The first season was about a squire and a knight finding each other in the last days of their chosen king’s reign. In the second, the wrong king — hard-ass patrol officer Scott Wright (Eric Allan Kramer) — has taken the throne, the knight has fallen off his horse, and the squire is the only one trying to make things right.

However, that layer of storytelling only captures a sliver of Lodge 49’s unique soul. When writing the pilot, Gavin says he began with the “image of a young man knocking on a door and an older man opening it,” and then proceeded to filter in a lifetime of private obsessions and personal experiences. There’s his longstanding interest in secret societies, of course, and a litany of literary influences to that effect — the title alludes to Thomas Pynchon’s famous novella, but Gavin also cites writers Thomas De Quincy, G.K. Chesterton, Jorge Luis Borges, Evan S. Connell, and Muriel Spark, all of whom are concerned with what he calls “a world with a kind of strangeness, a world filled with libraries and mirrors.” But Lodge 49 also incorporates the history of Long Beach and its declining aerospace industry, the post-recession debt crisis, the casual grifts baked into the marketing and service industries, a free-floating sense of loss (both personal and cultural), and the struggle to find meaning and stability in a late-capitalist landscape where the death of the traditional American Dream is taken as a given. All of these elements derive from Gavin’s own background as a fifth-generation Long Beach resident who has drifted toward wayward turns rather than direct paths.

By his own admission, Jim Gavin had many failed careers that constitute a wasteland of one’s twenties. He worked at a gas station through high school and college. He was a sportswriter for a local paper. He spent time in food service and temp jobs. He worked as a plumbing salesman, like his father before him, and spent a couple years driving around Southern California selling toilets to wholesalers. He was even a production assistant at Jeopardy!.

In his thirties, Gavin signed up for the UCLA Extension writers’ program and studied under writer and instructor Lou Mathews. He eventually received Stanford University’s prestigious Stegner Fellowship in creative writing, then later landed a byline in the New Yorker on the basis of an unsolicited fiction submission, which led to him publishing a short story collection, Middle Men, in 2014. Middle Men features seven stories that chronicle men in different stages of life, from adolescence to old age, as they grapple with their own limitations, the existential monotony of the daily professional grind, and a catalog of potent, yet mundane experiences.

“When I wrote Lodge 49, I was basically struggling to find teaching work,” Gavin tells me. “I had this disillusion that because I published a book I would be a desirable teaching candidate, but in the end, I was just another jerk with a book.” Gavin always figured that he’d eventually end up teaching high school, likely coaching a JV basketball team. The shadow of television ultimately got in the way.

“I would say that if it had been my ambition to do any of this, none of it would have happened,” Gavin notes. “I fell into it like an idiot and I’m very lucky I did.” He credits an insanely kind universe for his good fortune and admits to feeling like it’s all going to come back to destroy him.

The script for Lodge 49 eventually found its way into AMC and into the hands of Ocko, a veteran TV writer and producer with over 30 years of experience. Ocko ultimately helped get the series off the ground and create a space for Gavin, a TV neophyte, to flourish. “Peter has this amazing overall view of things, like thematically and story-wise, that I lack. I’m a little better on the microscopic level.” Gavin explains. “I’m lucky to be working with a showrunner who’s very secure in himself because he gives me a lot of freedom but he also often stops me from going over a cliff.”

Though confident in his own abilities, Ocko says that he’s learned so much from working with Gavin. “I’ve never worked with someone who has such an ability to drop into a scene and speak for the characters in a way that only those characters could speak. We come up with crazy stories and strange universes, and Jim will find a way to put it in the characters’ mouths so that it all seems very real. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Yet, Lodge 49 poses an interesting problem in a congested media landscape. How does a hyper-specific show with such a unique tone, which asks quite a bit of viewers in terms of pace and mystery, make itself known? Is there an anxiety about fighting for air?

“One thing I’ve always been confident of is that we’re making our own thing,” Gavin insists. “We’re not competing with any other show in terms of the story and what we’re trying to tell, it’s just we are competing with a very crowded field with lots of great stuff. Like anyone else, I feel overwhelmed by it.”

Ocko insists that Lodge 49 feels at home in the current environment, especially since the advent of streaming has helped disintegrate the concept of runtime-defining genre. “Ten years ago, this would have been put into a half-hour format,” he says. “No one would have been able to see it as an hour and I think that would have changed it pretty dramatically. This moment allows a show like Lodge, which definitely straddles both comedy and drama, to thrive.”

Gavin and Ocko want Lodge 49 to be like a refuge from the complexities of the real world, a show to relax with and enjoy instead of acting like a homework assignment. “The bar for me is I watch a lot of television with my cellphone in my hand,” Ocko continues. “The phone is competing with the television, which is so sad, but it’s true, and we want to make a show that makes people want to engage with it. You look up not because you have to, because there’s a dead body or a gunshot, but because you want to.”

For a show that encompasses so many ideas, it can be difficult to pinpoint what exactly makes Lodge 49’s loyal audience “look up.” I would wager that it has something to do with its commitment to real-life communities and communal spaces. In the show, the Lodge is a meeting place for disparate people, often in the second acts of their personal and professional lives, to come together, drink, and commiserate. But it’s also a place for people to connect with something magical, the potential for bigger-than-life coincidences. (As Ocko puts it, “We don’t believe in an angry God. We believe in a God with great comic timing.”)

“One thing that is missing in a lot of our lives is a sense of mystery,” Gavin argues. “I think everything is explained in some ways. There must be a place you can go and at least pretend for a little while that there are things beyond knowing that you might have access to, or that your life might have just a sense of grandeur inside the walls of the lodge that might be missing in the daylight world.”

Gavin explains that Lodge 49 partially came out of this feeling that society has lost these communal areas somewhere down the line, likely ceding territory to virtual and online communities. “I would drive by these old dusty lodges just imagining what they were like filled and the type of people who were in them. I think there is a difference to seeing someone face to face. In some sense, that’s what makes Lodge 49 a fantasy. I will admit to being someone who is solitary in a way that I had not imagined my adulthood being.”

“It’s no accident that it’s touched a nerve in people during the era of social media,” Ocko argues. “I think just portraying people who show up at a place to have a beer, who are not on their phones, who occasionally help each other, or at the very least care, in person, matters.”

Gavin populates Lodge 49 with people who need that sense of community partially because they’re in dire economic straits. No character in the series is financially secure. Dud frequently visits a local shifty pawnbroker to hock possessions or to secure terrible loans. Ernie struggles with being demoted at work after a lengthy sales career. Everyone scrounges for work, often relying on the gig economy to get them through each month. No other series on the air has so many scenes set in a temp agency.

Lodge 49 functions as a rebuke against a Protestant work ethic, the idea that work should be a central, dutiful force in one’s life. These characters, all working-class figures on the margins of society, work to exist as opposed to existing to work. Dud, in particular, views money merely as a means to an end, and doesn’t care about having a traditional career. His sister Liz, on the other hand, feels the weight of lost potential and falls into an existential crisis after crawling out from a mountain of debt. “As kids, me and my brother would play Chutes and Ladders, and for some reason, I always thought it was more fun going down the chute than climbing the ladder even if that meant losing,” Liz explains in the season premiere, perfectly capturing the aimlessness at the heart of Lodge 49.

“[Ocko] always says that we’re the least aspirational show on TV, and that’s really hard for some people to take in,” Gavin admits. “Television is so full of aspirational characters, and that’s the drive, and you’re supposed to feel happy when they achieve some end. I think Dud is such a unique character because of his attitude toward money. If Dud had a million dollars, he wouldn’t change a thing in his life. He would probably just redistribute it. That’s just natural to his character. It is, on a weird, goofy level, subversive.”

It’s one of many ways Lodge 49 engages with the zeitgeist without being indebted to it. Gavin and Ocko pride themselves on crafting the series to be somewhat timeless. They point to the show’s lack of pop-culture references and its distinct soundtrack — a combination of classic/contemporary surf rock and under-the-radar indie tracks from bands like the Lilys and Broadcast, all of which you won’t hear on any other series — as examples of its everlasting quality. “I like the idea that our show is its own reference point,” Ocko says. “It could exist at different points in American history.”

At the same time, though, Lodge 49 absolutely captures the tenuous, isolating feeling of being alive right now. Everything from Dud’s search for purpose to the snarky digs at corporate-speak infiltrating the mainstream reflects an American society fracturing in real time. The series throws away more satirical insight about modern life than most other shows can muster. (My favorite from this season: Blaze quickly explaining away his homelessness by saying that an investment group bought up his apartment complex and tripled the rent. “You can’t fight progress,” he sarcastically shrugs.) But it’s potent precisely because Lodge 49 incorporates it into the series infrastructure rather than putting it front and center. “For better or worse, catastrophe is timeless,” Gavin argues.

“I often go back to this James Joyce line,” he muses. “He wrote a letter to his brother, and it said, ‘Cruelty is weakness.’ And the people who have power are cruel and weak. I think Lodge 49, in its own way, without talking about it, provides a repose to that.”

Lodge 49 Wants to Be the ‘Least Aspirational Show on TV’