Sean “Dud” Dudley has had a rough year. Snakebite cut short a surf trip to Nicaragua, and the nasty, unhealed wound has become a hitch in his step. His father drowned a month later and left a pile of debts, forcing Dud (Wyatt Russell) and his twin sister, Liz (Sonya Cassidy), to liquidate the family business, a pool supply store, and leading the bank to foreclose on their home. All Dud has left, in the pilot episode of AMC’s quietly extraordinary Lodge 49, is his beat-up, banana-yellow Volkswagen Thing and the promise of fellowship in a fraternal order—which the series spins into TV’s most astute treatment of the Great Recession’s long reach since it all came undone that fraught, fateful autumn, a rough year for many that soon became five, and then ten.
Though Lodge 49, from creator Jim Gavin and showrunner Peter Ocko, appears to be a throwback to the blissed-out Southern California of the 1970s—shag carpet and stained wood; the alchemical mysticism of the order’s lore and the rakish disrepair of once-booming Long Beach—it becomes even roomier, as the first season unfurls, than its relaxed sensibilities might suggest. The plot’s fanciful passings of the torch, as Dud learns the ways of the order and Ernie (Brent Jennings), his unexpected mentor, prepares to assume leadership of the lodge, nest unobtrusively within the series’ more familiar stories: of predatory loans, looming layoffs, factory closures, redevelopment schemes; of long hours and low wages; of the deranged values by which corporations and elected officials and the most affluent among us have conspired to wring the rest of all we’re worth, only to turn around and act as if they’ve done us a fucking favor.
In this context, Lodge 49’s paean to simple pleasures—to mornings spent surfing and backyard barbecues, to motel room card games, domestic lagers, Saturdays and Sundays—becomes almost radical, a general strike against the arrangement of modern life into a mean ledger of profit and loss. “It’s a basic feature of capitalism: You can’t get loose, even on weekends,” one of Liz’s co-workers at Shamroxx, a cross between Hooters and TGI Fridays with a Blarney Stone kiss, complains in Monday night’s “Corpus,” which is already streaming on AMC.com. “It ain’t me, it ain’t me; I ain’t no fortunate one,” a pink-slipped worker at a local aircraft manufacturer screams into a microphone near the end of the episode, smashing a glass to cap off his rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s countercultural anthem. In its anti-establishment bent, its shabby setting, its socioeconomic backdrop, even its strange fascination with charlatans and philosophers, Lodge 49’s rangy, low-key particulars ultimately add up to the series’ essential question, and perhaps our own: How can we regain our sense of purpose, of value, in a culture that defines our worth on the basis of work?
As if it weren’t enough that Wall Street fat cats eager to anchor another yacht in the slip caused the financial crisis, filched $70,000 from every American in the process, escaped punishment, and continued to bankroll the very politicians responsible for regulating them, the Great Recession remade the economic life of the nation in subtler ways, too, the culmination of four decades of nibbling at the postwar compact: The shrinking labor market, declining earnings, soaring inequality, growing instability, crumbling unions, crushing debts, and rising rents that comprise the so-called “recovery”—and that’s just for starters—are swiftly becoming “the new normal.” The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey, in her useful primer on the long-term consequences of the recession, notes that economists’ term for such lingering aftereffects is “scarring,” and Lodge 49 is, correspondingly, a patchwork of injuries that have left their mark. The most literal, of course, is Dud’s bum leg, though other raised spots on the series’ skin betray troublesome stories, too. Dud squats in his former apartment, disrupts an attempt to rent out the old storefront, and leaps defiantly into the pool at his childhood home, frightening the remarkably patient new owners. Liz, once a successful paralegal, drifts through interminable shifts at Shamroxx, her wages garnished to pay her father’s debts, and still turns up in her uniform even on her day off. In “Corpus” alone, Ernie’s married paramour, Connie (Linda Emond), loses her job at a newspaper during their “pivot to video”; Ernie finds himself in a planning meeting for a new “multi-use luxury condo facility”; and Dud lands a gig collating “termination folders” at Orbis, the aforementioned aircraft manufacturer, amid a Kafkaesque maze of empty cubicles. “We’ve been closing for five years, building by building, department by department,” the human resources officer overseeing him explains. “People call me the Angel of Death.”
It’s not that Lodge 49 is uncomplicatedly nostalgic, either—referring to the store, the house, and their father’s pawned watch, Liz, the closest the series comes to a voice of reason, warns, “It’s all gone, Dud. Why can’t you see that?” Nor does it lean on the tedious canard, as omnipresent in “serious” reporting on the subject as it is in ABC’s abortive Roseanne revival, that “the working class” is primarily white, rural, and (post-) industrial—without fanfare, the series is populated by Asians, Pacific Islanders, Latinos, and African Americans, by shop clerks and small-business owners and security guards and dishwashers; near the conclusion of “Corpus,” Ernie, a plumbing salesman, even points out to Dud the array of occupations represented by the lodge’s membership, from a trusty mechanic to a veteran teacher. If Lodge 49 can be said to have a sentimental streak, then, it’s not for “the past,” pure and simple, nor indeed for the prelapsarian one Dud so often imagines. No, the series is far more absorbed by indefinite time than historical time, by time free from work and free to live, to stroll the beach and float in the pool, to think, to rest, and simply to be, time that has been stolen from us as surely as our wealth, and is not nearly so easy to quantify.
In this, Lodge 49 is the spiritual successor to Mike White and Laura Dern’s sublime Enlightened, updated for an age in which optimism of the most elemental sort often rings naive. Because it is, for all the ire burning in its gut, for all the regrets along its margins, a gentle, profoundly humane series, buoyed by much the same belief as Amy Jellicoe: “You don’t have to run away from life your whole life. You can really live. And you can change. And you can be an agent of change.” In Lodge 49, though, change isn’t necessarily a function of charging forward into the breach. To retreat from one’s obligations to the hollow, uptight, sold-out disaster of late capitalism, and from the concomitant destruction of the social contract, is itself a form of resistance: As Dud remembers of an ordinary weekend with his father and sister (blue surf, clean pool, hot grill, cold beer), “It was perfect, but I didn’t realize it was perfect until later.” The series doesn’t proffer simple solutions to the problems it poses—it certainly doesn’t advocate going off the grid or quitting one’s job or ignoring one’s debts as if any of those choices are inconsequential—but it does—mercifully, admirably, with an unmannered touch that marks it as one of the best new TV series of the year—seek to remind us that the culture of work we’ve created wasn’t inevitable, and needn’t be permanent.
Case in point: In next week’s episode, tellingly titled “Sunday,” Dud and Ernie run out of gas before a billboard emblazoned with the question, “IS THERE ANOTHER WAY TO LIVE?”
It stops both men in their tracks. “I don’t get it,” Dud asks. “Is it advertising something?”
“The future,” Ernie replies: Time that no one’s stolen from us. Time that’s priceless, because it’s still free.
Lodge 49 airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on AMC.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.