“When I’m out there, I feel like I’m all alone,” Sean “Dud” Dudley (Wyatt Russell) says. “But it’s different in here. I can see what this place is. I can feel it. Can’t you?”
The sweetly dim surfer at the center of AMC’s Lodge 49 (premiering August 6th) is describing both the Pynchonesque, Paul Giamatti-produced dramedy and the organization that gives the show its name — waxing about how joining a local fraternal order provides both a new purpose for this hopelessly hopeful hero and an unlikely friendship with middle-aged toilet salesman Ernie (Brent Jennings), who’s been going through the motions.
Ernie, Dud’s sister Liz (Sonya Cassidy) and the other members of Lodge 49 are baffled by how impressed Dud is by this place – which has a nice members-only bar but is otherwise a glorified bingo hall. There’s a special room called the Sentinel Suite for out-of-town visitors that you have to enter through a secret door, though it’s just a musty little place with a creaky old bed.
And at first glance, the series seems similarly modest in both its ambitions and its charms. What little plot there is to speak of – involving a shady land deal, an almost mythical developer known only as “Captain” and the origins of the society to which the lodge belongs – doesn’t even really begin until the season’s second half. (There’s a running gag featuring Giamatti as the audiobook narrator for a series of Jack Reacher-esque thrillers that are diametric opposites to the gradually unfolding story.) Long stretches of the show lean heavily on the charm of the unlikely trio of Russell (Hollywood royalty, as the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn), Jennings (a character actor whom you might recognize as A’s coach Ron Washington in Moneyball) and Cassidy (a British actress disappearing into a frustrated blue-collar SoCal character). Those actors turn out to have chemistry to burn – my friend Daniel Fienberg described the show to me, not inaccurately, as “Terriers without detective work.” But the early episodes are so meandering and low-stakes that they seem designed (by, among others, author Jim Gavin, who created the show) to test that old cliché about performers whom you would gladly watch read from the phone book.
Still, there’s more to the Sentinel Suite than meets the eye — and to Lodge 49 as well.
The death of Dud and Liz’s beloved pool cleaner father has put both their lives into a tailspin – the former essentially homeless and barely employable, the latter drowning in debt and living a life so modest that even her dreams are of her doing her day job as a chain-restaurant waitress. When Dud finally gets a temp job, it’s assembling termination packets at the local aerospace plant that’s nearing the end of a long dismantling process; Ernie and his friends aren’t doing much better in an economy that’s increasingly leaving them all behind. In the midst of all the goofiness about Dud’s feud with a small-time loan shark, Ernie’s quest to succeed the cantankerous Larry (Kenneth Welch from Twin Peaks) as “Sovereign Protector” and the search for Captain, there’s a lot of sad, sweet commentary about making the best of what life is rather than what you want it to be, and about embracing the past without being trapped by it. Like its protagonist, the series keeps finding beauty and splendor in the mundane. And there’s tremendous warmth in the bond between Ernie and this kid, and among all the Lodge members.
Again, it’s slow. It’s strange bordering on self-indulgent. It’s the sort of show that will be the all-time favorite of a few dozen Sean Dudleys of this world while leaving many more grounded Lizzes and Ernies scratching their heads, not without reason.
Ernie explains that Larry once assured him, “Stick around. The Lodge is gonna give you a gift. I promise.” For the viewers who happen to be tuned into its quirky frequency, Lodge 49 will make Larry’s words an endearing reality.