This Lodge 49 review is spoiler-free.
AMC is home to one of the most uniquely American shows on television. For three seasons (and soon to be four), Better Call Saul has been a modern Western filed with hustlers, conmen, assassins, crime bosses, and ordinary dudes who need to manufacture meth to cover their medical bills – basically everything that makes America “great.” All these misfits and malcontents live in an expansive desert dotted with strip malls, car washes and air conditioning.
Better Call Saul has become one of TV’s best shows and one of culture’s strongest evidence that good old-fashioned American storytelling is alive and well. It also must be a real bitch to follow up. For three seasons now, AMC hasn’t even really bothered trying. Better Call Saul lives alone on its own little Monday night island. Nothing of note has ever followed it because nothing of note can. What could possibly stand up next to and even complement the brilliant modern American tragicomedy that comes before it?
As it turns out, AMC has finally found something that comes pretty close.
Lodge 49, which debuts Monday, August 6 after Saul, is not only a strong thematic complement to the show that precedes it, it’s also very good – funny, intriguing, confident in its own weird, cracked skin.
Wyatt Russell stars as Sean “Dud” Dudley, an aimless surfer bro recovering from the disappearance of his father and an injury sustained from a snakebite in Nicaragua. Dud aimlessly wanders the beaches of Long Beach, metal detector in hand looking for something, anything to pay the bills or perhaps even provide some direction.
He discovers a ring on the beach and that sets him down a path that eventually leads him to the mysterious Lodge 49 – a chapter of the Ancient and Benevolent Order of the Lynx, where men and women gather to offer one another fellowship, drink lots of beer, and maybe, just maybe uncover the secrets of the universe.
Lodge 49 gets out of the gate absurdly strong. Its first episode (AMC made all ten episodes of the first season available to review and this review is based off the first five) is by far its best. One of the hardest things in visual art is creating a universe that feels simultaneously real and also guided by the hand of a capable storyteller. Lodge 49, like Better Call Saul, gets that exactly correct from the very get-go.
All of the show’s characters’ desperation feels real and earned. Dud and his sister Liz (played by Sonya Cassidy, a Brit who possesses a Hugh Laurie-level American accent) are poor not because the plot requires them to be poor but because their father took out questionable loans before he died and then the town’s largest employer, space exploration technology supplier Orbis, went belly-up.
It’s hard to depict actual poverty on television because poverty has this way of swallowing everything around it. It’s like a dramatic version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. How can a story get us to invest ourselves in a character’s spiritual or emotional problems when their immediate physical problems are so much worse? Lodge 49 somehow pulls off this balancing act of making Dud, Liz, and the rest of the town’s financial destitution very real without it putting an immediate stop to their emotional and spiritual journeys to come.
Also working in the show’s favor is its environment. Long Beach feels as melancholically vibrant as its inhabitants do. All of its beautiful blue and orange beaches and palm trees can’t hide the run down strip malls and potholes. Creator Jim Gavin is an acclaimed short story writer who writes extensively about Southern California and it shows here. This is the best (and believably worst) Southern California has looked on television since Terriers.
Lodge 49 is actually quite indebted to FX’s much loved but quickly canceled Terriers. Both shows use a sunshine-y Southern Californian town as a backdrop to a story about an American middle class in its death throes. In Terriers, the lead characters dealt with the villainous real estate developers by investigating them. In Lodge 49, the lead characters deal with the death of the company in their company town (and subsequent takeover by villainous real estate developers) by joining a fraternal lodge or working 80 hours a week at their breastaurant waitressing jobs.
Given the general state of our world and beloved internet, it can be politically fraught and discomforting to say that a piece of art is masculinist. Lodge 49 is in though in thoughtful, non-MRA ways. While the titular Lodge is open to women and there are several fascinating female characters including Liz Dudley and the scholarly Connie Clark (Linda Edmond), the show’s is mostly interesting in its lost men.
The men of Long Beach in Lodge 49 are Mickey-Rourke in-The-Wrestler-style old, busted up pieces of meat. Co-lead character Ernie Fontaine (Brent Jennings) loves a woman who can’t love him back, works for a company that can’t pay him properly, and lives for a fraternal organization that can’t seem to give him the leadership position he covets.
Dud, Ernie, Blaise, Scott (Eric Allan Kramer), and the other men of the show all have skillsets, interests, and desires that no one is interested in paying for anymore. Its subtly, quietly, kind of heartbreaking. Thankfully they stay away from message boards and embrace the fraternal, some times mystical powers of the Lodge.
The show’s leads are all superb. Jennings brings an appropriate level of sad-eyed Willy Loman strength to the role. My only previous exposure to Russell was in his episode of Black Mirror, “Playtest,” in which I found the character and his performance strangely off-putting but he’s perfect here. Cassidy as Liz, however, is the best the show has to offer. Liz alone bears the brunt of all her father’s financial misdeeds and the actress bears the weight so viscerally that Atlas would blush.
Eventually Lodge 49 begins to nudge up against some magical realism. Coincidences begin to mount up and some sun-soaked American myth making begins to take hold. Blaise St. John (David Pasquesi), the Lodge’s mystic, uncovers some mystical secrets from the past. And the Lodge’s leader seems to have some visions of his own. The show is able to effortlessly incorporate this level of (sometimes satirical) weirdness into its unique tone. If anything, Lodge 49’s narrative framework is strong enough to accommodate even more magic – it just doesn’t fully trust itself yet.
Lodge 49’s occasional inability to fully embrace that magic is its one big failing. The show is in love with scene setting and character building, which is fair because those are two of its best qualities. Still sometimes the plot simply needs to shuffle faster. At times the show is its own wayward, mystical surfer, wandering around a beach looking for treasures rather than clearing its own path.
Ultimately, that deliberate pace may be a barrier to entry for a lot of people. While the show is a perfect thematic companion to Better Call Saul, it doesn’t share its same commitment to tight, explosive plotting. And that’s a shame because the story it does have to tell is interesting, and the world it builds, strange, uncomfortable, lovely, and American as all fuck.