Gradually during the opening scenes of “Joe Versus the Volcano,” my heart began to quicken, until finally I realized a wondrous thing: I had not seen this movie before. Most movies, I have seen before. Most movies, you have seen before. Most movies are constructed out of bits and pieces of other movies, like little engines built from cinematic Erector sets. But not “Joe Versus the Volcano.”
I’ve watched a frankly absurd and unhealthy amount of television over the last decade, and while a lot of it has been quite strange, there’s not a lot I can say was truly unlike anything else I’d ever seen. Most of the best pulled off a very recognisable formula at an unusual level of excellence and a clear creative voice, like Top of the Lake with “small town with a dark secret” shows or Review with fake reality shows. The list of sincerely original shows I’ve seen is quite short, but I think about those that make the cut – Twin Peaks: The Return, Sense8 and The Young Pope, for example — probably every day. It’s not only that I love those shows, though I do, or that they changed my notions of what was possible on television and in storytelling generally, though they did. It’s that the thrill of watching them for the first time and slowly realising I was watching something that really felt like the first of its kind gave me such a rush of excitement, it practically tattooed them onto my brain. I have yet to rewatch any of those shows, but I could tell you a hundred scenes from any of them at the drop of a hat.
Lodge 49 was just such a show.
Lodge 49 is kind of difficult to summarise without compressing its loose, freewheeling weirdness into something more straightforward, but I’ll give it a shot. Sean “Dud” Dudley (Wyatt Russell) is an unemployed ex-surfer living in Long Beach, California out of his yellow VW Thing and making money by searching for saleable detritus with a metal detector on the beach where he used to surf. Under his sunny, carefree demeanour, he’s struggling: as well as his financial problems, he’s recently lost his father to a surfing accident, their family’s home and pool-cleaning store to the debts his father racked up before his death, and his one escape – surfing – to a snake bite that’s left him with a pronounced limp and constant pain. Through a series of coincidences, or perhaps guided by fate, he arrives outside the local lodge of an ancient fraternal order (à la the Freemasons or Rosicrucians) called the Order of the Lynx and decides to join almost immediately, convinced he’s found the place he’s meant to be.
From there, things get stranger and more complicated. Dud becomes the “squire” to Lodge 49’s “Luminous Knight” Ernie Fontaine (Brent Jennings) and develops a kinship with local apothecary and weed dispenser Blaise St. John (David Pasquesi), who’s way more into the occult and alchemical elements of the Lynx mythology than anyone else. Other Lynxes, who mostly use the lodge as a social club, include its kooky leader Larry (Kenneth Walsh), who’s a Vietnam veteran, journalist Connie (Linda Edmond), who’s having an affair with Ernie, and her cop husband Scott (Eric Allan Kramer), who’s grumpy and plays guitar. Describing too much of the show’s plot at this point would make it sound super dense – in just the first season, there’s a hidden room with a corpse, a man whose name is literally Corporate and a hostage situation involving a harpoon gun – but one of the incredible things about this show was how much it could have going on at once without ever feeling overstuffed or confusing.
The last decade has seen an explosion in mystery-driven shows, from the conventional season-long murder mystery (True Detective, Happy Valley, Big Little Lies) to genre-y remixes (Riverdale, Ripper Street, Wayward Pines) to what critics have come to call “mystery box shows”, where the whole hook of the show is figuring out what’s really going on under the surface. Not all such shows are bad, by any means, and some are even great. I loved Gravity Falls, a kind of “Twin Peaks for kids” cartoon about two twins on summer vacation in a mysterious town, and Russian Doll, a dark comedy about a woman trapped in a Groundhog Day-style time loop. I was among a select few who wept for the cancellation of Dark Matter, a Canadian sci-fi show about a spaceship crew who wake up one day with their memories erased and have to find out who they were and what happened to them. What makes those shows great is how they strike the right balance between the mystery and the characters, with twists that will leave you gobsmacked – the elevator scene in Russian Doll! – happening to characters you care about. But the worst of the genre forefront the mystery so much it’s more like watching someone put together a jigsaw for ten hours than a real television show. The worst of the worst is, of course, Westworld, which withheld so much information in its first season (including the personalities, motivations and relationships of most of the characters) out of fear its twists would be predicted by fans, that it was basically impossible for many people to give a shit by the time any of the answers were revealed. (It didn’t help that, despite their efforts, tons of people guessed the twists without even trying that hard.) But there are plenty of other examples, like the mind-numbingly boring The Kettering Incident, and even generally good mystery shows have run themselves into a rough patch by putting too much emphasis on plot, as with much of The Good Place’s final season.
Lodge 49 is a show full of mysteries, many of a possibly mystical, prophetic nature and just as many rooted in the brutal (if often surreal) reality of late capitalism, but the twists and turns were always secondary to the characters and their feelings and their relationships with each other. You might well call it the good twin to Westworld’s evil one. However the plot of an episode played out, what mattered was whether it brought Dud and Ernie closer together or drove them apart, whether it escalated the interpersonal tension between the lodge members or eased it. The mysteries were often put on a backburner for episodes at a time to focus more on character drama and I never felt like the show was holding out on me or delaying the reveal, because I wasn’t there for the plot, I was there for the characters. As the AV Club’s Danette Chavez put it in her review of the season two finale: “We question because we care; we don’t care just because we have questions.” Of course, it could still be dramatic and exciting and moving – Dud’s speech about his hardships at the lodge in the pilot, so beautifully performed by Wyatt Russell, was what hooked me at the start – but its basic tone was light and breezy, more of a hangout sitcom than the quasi-mystic conspiracy thriller that a bare description of its major plot points might imply. Even more delightfully, for me at least, it was one of the most incisive and insightful shows about the spiritual sickness of life under capitalism in recent times.
Some of that is brought out in the lodge side of the show: many of the members are workers at the local aerospace manufacturer, Orbis, who’ve been laying people off for five years by the start of the series, and Connie loses her job at the paper immediately after pitching a story on Long Beach’s economic collapse. But it’s at the heart of Dud’s more mundane storylines, featuring his various temp jobs, and especially those of his twin sister, Liz (Sonya Cassidy). While Dud maintains a forceful optimism in the face of everything that’s gone wrong with their lives, Liz is more dour, sarcastic and pessimistic. She works as a waitress at a Hooters-esque bar with an Irish pub theme called Shamroxx – just one example of its wonderfully silly worldbuilding – while trying to pay off their father’s debts, which have ended up in her name. Debt is a major theme of the first season especially, with Dud taking out frivolous loans from a loan shark, Liz struggling under the weight of her “inheritance”, Ernie trying to pay off his gambling debts and the lodge itself at risk of being foreclosed upon due to an unpaid mortgage. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the crushing reality of living with debt, in all its tedium and anxiety, portrayed so vividly. The constant grind to earn barely enough to meet interest payments, the pressure to take on more and more work at the cost of your own sanity and health, the growing temptation to screw other people or take demoralising or even unethical jobs just to stay one step ahead of the black hole swallowing everything in its path. When he first joins, Ernie overcharges Dud for membership so he can pay off his bookie. One of Dud’s first and most dystopian temp jobs is processing the paperwork to lay off Orbis workers, just him and his supervisor in a vast, empty office. When Liz realises she will never, ever finish paying off her father’s bad loans, she offers the bank all her savings and tells them to write the rest of it off or she’ll kill herself. Miraculously, it works. (In a show that pretty casually floats the possibility the hollow earth theory is true, this is probably the most unrealistic thing that happens.)
You could imagine a compelling show made from either half, but the combination is what elevates Lodge 49 from good to great, and the show just gets better the closer they’re brought together. The lodge, both as a social institution and as a possible source of deeper, mystical meaning, is contrasted with the atomisation and alienation of life under capitalism. At a training weekend for management-track employees, Liz is confounded by the bizarre, pseudoscientific, new-age jargon of Shamroxx’s parent company, OmniCorp. Rather than groups, she and the other trainees are separated into “Distillation 1 (Praxis)” and “Distillation 2 (Theoria)”, with arbitrarily-numbered seminars called things like “Cloud of Unknowing”, “Charaktermaske” and “Plenitude?”:
That gibberish might bear a passing similarity to the alchemical terminology that obsesses Blaise, but each offers something very different. While the jargon at OmniCorp is designed to break employees down and mould them into sycophantic followers of Omni’s psychopathic CEO (and clear Elizabeth Holmes parody) Janet, the alchemical mysteries are supposed to open people up to deeper insight into the meaning of life, the universe and everything. One is used to teach people to fight each other for scraps, the other to teach them to join together in pursuit of a spiritually satisfying search for the truth that also treats camaraderie and friendship as ends in themselves. It’s why those who attempt to use the secrets of alchemy for individual self-enrichment are typically punished – a former leader of Lodge 49 died attempting to achieve immortality and Blaise has a mental breakdown trying to do the same – and always portrayed as villainous. Two hired goons, played by Tyson Ritter of the All-American Rejects and It’s Always Sunny’s Mary Elizabeth Ellis, infiltrate the lodge to track down a set of ancient scrolls allegedly discovered by the Order’s founder and brought to Lodge 49 by Larry’s mother. While it initially seems like they might be part of some occult conspiracy, it turns out to be a get-rich-quick scheme: the scrolls apparently have a formula for hacking bitcoin or something (the inability of the lodge members to understand it or the infiltrators to explain it is a running gag). When they’re exposed, Blaise is almost as disgusted that anyone would want to use the secrets of the scrolls for such base and petty means as the betrayal and deceit. The second season explores the nature of the scrolls and their theft in a fantastic flashback episode focused on Larry’s mother, the villain of which is an Orbis executive who convinces her to steal them based on a mutual interest in alchemy only to reveal he plans to use them to build an advanced missile guidance system to profit from the Vietnam War.
Lodge 49 was a small wonder of a show and, despite its consistently low ratings, I hoped it’d survive for at least one more season, buoyed along, like Halt and Catch Fire before it, by AMC’s willingness to renew acclaimed but unpopular shows to maintain their brand. But, just two weeks after season two concluded last October, it got the chop, and series creator Jim Gavin later confirmed attempts to shop it around to other networks were unsuccessful. I obviously don’t like it when any show I like gets cancelled, and I wouldn’t even call Lodge 49 one of the top five cancellations that wounded me most in the last decade. But there was a special sting in losing a show that asserted so passionately that human happiness matters more than profit, that some things enrich our lives so much and are so core to what makes life good they should be preserved no matter how much they cost, got cancelled because it just didn’t rake in enough of those sweet advertising dollars. Nor does it help that it ended on one of the most shocking and beautiful images I’ve ever seen on TV, a single shot that answered and raised more questions in just a couple of seconds than most “mystery box” shows can manage in season after season of wanky, esoteric bullshit (no, I don’t watch Westworld anymore, why do you ask?).
But, most of all, it feels like a loss because there really was nothing else like it on television. I’ve used genres like “hangout sitcom” or “conspiracy thriller” to gesture at what it was like, but only because I don’t have better words for it. It’s how you know something is truly unique, when not just your own vocabulary, but seemingly the entire vocabulary of the medium, fails to capture it. It was a show that actually broke down the comedy/drama divide, and not by being a comedy that was sad, like almost every other show described that way, but by being a compelling drama while maintaining fairly low stakes and a very light, silly, comic tone. On the one hand, there’s almost something vignette-like about how events of an episode relate to each other a lot of the time, but it’s also something totally complete and coherent, a show where everything comes back and everything matters, but because it matters to the characters, not because it’s all part of a huge plot diagram. The Peak TV bubble is often credited for making possible dozens of strange shows that otherwise could never have been made in their creator’s wildest dreams, and there’s some truth to that. But while it may be easy for those shows to come into existence, it’s also made it much harder for them to survive.
Lodge 49 isn’t the first breathtakingly original show I’ve lost, and it won’t be the last. But I think about it all the time. Maybe you will too.