Lodge 49, AMC's new hour-long comedic drama, is about losers—the unlucky, the broke, the down and out. It's about the ones for whom life has shat on from an enormous height. It's also about alchemy, plumbing, surfing, debt, laziness, the housing crisis, the disappearance of the middle class, and conspiracies. And that's just in the first episode.
The series feels almost novelistic, like Joyce's Leopold Bloom wandering around Dublin half in the bag. It's already been described as a "modern-day fable," and with a relatively psychedelic soundtrack and occasional bursts of magical realism, it moves around like a bar story you don't quite believe—a zany, exaggerated, and somewhat meandering ten-episode tale someone might lean over and tell you while downing some cheap, watered-down beer. "Falling into Lodge 49," James Poniewozik writes in the New York Times , "is like hanging out at an oddball dive… that you ignored the instinct to keep walking past."
The main character is Dud (Wyatt Russell), a surfer who's not surfing after being bit by a snake in Nicaragua, and who drives around his native Long Beach, California, in a beat-up Volkswagen. His father recently drowned in a body-surfing accident (or ran into the ocean and killed himself), and Dud is preoccupied with getting back everything that was lost—their old house and his dad's pool store, where they had worked together and where he now sometimes squats. Dud has no money, and on top of occasional temp jobs, borrows more than he can afford from a local pawn broker, Burt (Joe Grifasi), and his perpetually cynical twin sister, Liz (Sonya Cassidy), who's employed at a Hooters-like restaurant as a waitress and is struggling to pay back their dad's crippling debt to the bank.
When Dud finds a ring on the beach from the Ancient & Benevolent Order of the Lynx, a fraternal lodge like the Freemasons or the Elks, he believes, finally, he's found a meaning for his life—a place where he can settle in for a greater purpose, and also drink. This is Lodge 49. Here, he meets a cast of characters—among them, Ernie (Brent Jennings), his eventual mentor and a plumbing salesman jockeying to be in charge of the lodge; Connie (Linda Emond), an old-school journalist now working at a new media–esque company who was Ernie's high school sweetheart; her brash husband, Scott (Eric Allan Kramer); and Blaise (David Pasquesi), an alchemist-in-training who deals weed. They are all, in their own ways, bumbling through lives that didn't quite turn out the way they wanted—but that doesn't mean they're any less wondrous. And, lucky for us, we get to follow them as they bounce around Southern California.
So, ahead of the premiere, we chatted with Jim Gavin, Lodge 49's creator and a SoCal native. I should say now, though it should become clear reading the conversation below, that Gavin and I know each other. I met him eight years ago, in a creative writing course he was teaching at Boston University, when I was an undergraduate and he was enrolled in the MFA program. He had just published a story, "Costello," in the New Yorker, a tale about a plumbing salesman mourning his wife in Southern California. I remember, before I walked into his class, reading it in a sort of trance. I was 20 years old and didn't know people wrote like that or about these things—funny, real, sympathetic takes on the working class. Gavin had, even before his foray into television, a remarkable trajectory: He worked with his father selling plumbing equipment, took an extension class at UCLA with a fiction-writing auto mechanic, received a prestigious creative writing fellowship at Stanford, and published a short story collection titled Middle Men.
Gavin is a generous, hilarious, and endlessly humble man—and, much like the show he created, oscillates between dark, meandering, hysterical anecdotes into the absurd and simple moments of great profundity. You'll know, I'm sure, when he's joking.
This interview was conducted over email. It has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: How did Lodge 49 come about? Especially considering you had no TV experience.
Jim Gavin: The short version is that my book [Middle Men] became a calling card. A few people around town liked it, so I got a foot in the door at an agency. Nothing ever happened with the book. I went off and wrote the pilot, just hoping it could be a writing sample, and it got to Dan Carey and Paul Giamatti, then to AMC, who bought it, and eventually I started working with Peter Ocko, our showrunner. Peter is a comic genius and getting to work with him every day as a creative partner has been the best part of all this. We share a sensibility that tends toward the absurd while being grounded in mundane reality, and together with our amazing staff of writers I think we've created a joyride of a show.
What was the genesis of the show, however? Why are you so attracted to fraternal lodges, like the Order of the Lynx?
By day a man sells toilets. But when the sun goes down, he puts on a robe and glengarry and becomes a Luminous Knight. My long-term interest in fraternal orders has more to do with the people involved, the very human wish to instill one's life with a sense of meaning and grandeur that the daylight world doesn't offer. Many of these orders, the American Legion, for example, formed in the wake of a catastrophe, like World War I. People set adrift, needing a place to go. Yes, there's the odd tale of murder among Freemasons and the like—there was a brief hysteria in the 19th century that writers like Poe had fun exploiting—but in most places, it's just a dusty building where people gather and maybe, if they're pushing things, digging into the sweets of Western esoterica, they find a way to return a sense of mystery and wonder to their lives. This is a worthwhile pursuit, especially alongside pinball. Lodge 49 has many secrets, and there are conspiracies, but they are being perpetrated by fumbling, human characters. For Dud, the lodge is a refuge, containing the last embers of magic in a fallen kingdom.
What—or maybe rather who—were your influences for the series? Is Lodge 49 an allusion to Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49?
I don't know. Maybe "49" refers to the Gold Rush? Or Pentecost? Or the Long Beach State baseball team? Or maybe it's part of an alpha/numeric cypher that reveals the combo of a safety deposit box in Zurich containing $300 in Camel Cash? Or maybe it's totally random. I really can't say. But I will say this: Yes, it is definitely a loving allusion to Mr. Pynchon. Historical and literary inspirations abound, but for me perhaps the single biggest influence is Trish Keenan of [the band] Broadcast. She was a psychedelic genius of the highest order, a true oracle and purveyor of silver spinning celestial grace. Along with James Cargill, she conjured an enchanted world, one that somehow encompasses past and future simultaneously, in endless astonishing ways. It breaks my heart that she's no longer with us. Lodge 49 is in many ways a love letter to the world she created.
For me, the most poignant moment in the first season is when Dud goes back to his father's house, which had foreclosed, and the family who lives there comes outside and demands that he leaves. He jumps into the pool then, but he returns to the house, again and again, even though it's something he's never getting back. My parents' house foreclosed, so I recognize this kind of sad desperation. What I'm getting at is many of the characters in this show—Dud and Ernie, in particular—are, however poorly, trying reconstruct the past, which they perhaps once took for granted. They haven't given up on life, but they don't really want much—and they just seem to meander around to obtain things. This context is to ask a relatively simple question: How do you write a show so out of convention, without any of those tangible desires everyone in the film and television world is always harping about?
I haven't been back to [my own family's] house since the bank took it for good. This was a while ago, somewhere in the long wake of the crash. For a few months, I was unemployed and squatting in it. All the furniture was out, but we left the couch and TV, and though we stopped paying for cable, it was still on, so it became a weird club house for me and my sisters. They'd come by at night, and we'd watch Lost or X-Files in the ruins of our old ranch house (three bedrooms, with two illegal additions, and rotten with termites), the place my parents worked so hard to hold on to, barely, year after year, living month to month. On some mornings, I'd wake up and sense that people were in the house, and it would be a realtor showing people around, and they'd open my door and find this sad, monstrous 35-year-old man in his boxers staring at them, and everyone's blood would run cold. I finally left, and a homeless kid moved in. He broke a back window, slept in a sleeping bag, recorded softcore porn on our DVR, and ate cereal that he spilled everywhere. He was but one of many in this country.
Finally, some neighbors called the police, and it was all just a seriously weird and fucked-up time, years of body blows and then in 2008 the haymaker to what was once known as the middle class. Or the lower-middle class? Or the working class? They're all the falling classes. Something about that time, those empty afternoons, the sun-kissed dread, that sense of a past and future being lost… I think many people felt that in those years and still do. A slow-motion catastrophe. Not to sound like a total whiner. The Gavins had a good run, and we were lucky to have that house for as long as we did. Someday I'll return to the old house, do a full a Brideshead, but I'm not ready yet.
As Peter Ocko says, Lodge 49 has the least aspirational characters on TV. They really aren't asking for much out of this life. But even the most modest dreams of middle-class life seem so far from reach.
Ernie is in plumbing sales, which isn't the sexiest of careers. So it begs the question: Why plumbing sales? I mean, I know you like writing about plumbing sales, clearly, but—how much of this tale and these characters are derived, directly or indirectly, from your actual life?
Today's teens want, more than anything, nuanced character stories about middle-aged plumbing salesmen. I'm totally here for them. I used to sell plumbing supplies for a manufacturer's rep. On my first day, my boss called me into his office to give me a pep talk. He said, "You're going to walk into these wholesalers, and they won't want to talk to you. It's because you're a salesman. You're the scum of the earth." And that was it. That was his pep talk. I did it for a couple years. I was living in Long Beach at time. I'd get up at 4 AM and drive up to the high desert to demo pipe threaders for some new work plumbers in Victorville. On the way back, I'd stop at wholesalers all over the Inland Empire and Orange County. After eight-plus hours in the car, I'd get home and walk around the neighborhood, look at the tankers in the harbor. I made $30,000 a year, way more than I had ever made, and I paid $800 for a one bedroom, so I was living really well, but the truth was I sucked at sales. I don't like to ask for things. That's my main problem. Anyway, I actually loved the people in the industry and knew I would miss it. A certain humility prevails. It's a place where people end up, not a place anyone ever dreams of. There's lots of families, dynastic lines (my dad is a plumbing lifer), and there is something eternally real and necessary about the product. Plumbing is the foundation of civilization. It's not as sexy or lucrative as running a hedge fund, for example, but the proximity to crucial human needs makes one a more grounded and non-terrible person. Piss rolls downhill. Pay day is Friday. The Eternal Truths.
The "Kingdom of Long Beach," as you would say, is almost as much of a character as any character. How much does Long Beach play into the atmosphere of Lodge 49? Does it inform the magical realism elements scattered throughout? Watching it almost feels like a myth on the screen.
I hope the universal can be found in the particular. My dad grew up in Long Beach, graduated from Long Beach Poly, Home of Scholars & Champions, met my mom (an East Coast transplant) there, and tells stories of his wayward youth, before he shipped for Vietnam. I was born in Long Beach and spent a lot of time there as a kid, but I mostly grew up in Anaheim and Orange, places I also have a strong affection for. I lived in Long Beach later on as an adult, and now my dad and one of my sisters are back there, so I return a lot. Long Beach has always lived in my mind as a place that feels both familiar and strange—I feel at home there, but there's an elusive quality, something mysterious and metaphysical that I associate with the haze of a Sunday afternoon. I've always been interested in it's boom and bust history—oil, aerospace, the growth of the harbor. So much of SoCal was built on government investment in weaponry—the endless bungalows underwritten by Cold War paranoia. There was this period of prosperity that now seems to haunt the city. In 2015, I read an article in the LA Times about the last Boeing C-17 flying out of Long Beach. All the workers gathered to watch it fly out of town, and all their jobs went with it. I had already written the pilot at that point, but that image stayed with me. Right now Long Beach is doing a lot of redevelopment, building luxury condos for future residents, while the actual people still living there are getting evicted. Anyway… all these moods and fascinations went into the show. But we're not making a documentary. This is a fable vision of Long Beach, one I think people in all parts of the country can relate to on some level.
Debt—and how people deal with their debts—is very much at the center Lodge 49. And it feels very true to life. So many people, obviously, structure their lives around money, or their lack of money. Both Dud and Liz grow miserable in their own ways—Dud because he ignores his debt, and Liz because she doesn’t. Is one more right than other, or are we all just fucked? Why focus on it?
If you've ever been around someone who described themselves as "broke," because they didn't want to dip into their savings or ask for money from their parents, and if this drove you to the brink of insanity, then you'll probably relate to Dud and Liz, who are broke broke in sense of being actually broke and crushed by debt. The great Sam Lipsyte has a phrase in The Ask—"crabbed moneyless exhaustion." Dud and Liz know this well, and each deals with it in a different and not necessarily healthy way. Liz has a more outwardly sensible and responsible understanding of money, but it's fucked her up just as much as Dud, who requires very little money to enjoy the things he values in life. Neither is more right than other, in my opinion, but I'm sure others would disagree.
This show requires you to pay attention. It's a wonderfully slow burn. There's a scene when Connie Mills, the old local journalist and Lodge member, is being chastised by her young BuzzFeed-esque boss, and she offhandedly references working on a seal story he wants her to write. Later on, when Dud and Ernie are driving, a seal darts across the middle of the road. Which is to say everything in Lodge 49 can sometimes feel random, but everything's there for a reason. How did you connect these dots? Would you say the narrative depends on coincidence?
The Ancient & Benevolent Order of the Lynx uses as its central metaphor the idea of seeing. Alchemy as a way to turn the lens on a moment and see some new and secret harmony in the world. I hope this applies to our viewers—we've tried to create a show that rewards active engagement. Ideally, the show will be one that rewards multiple views, as little details, offhand lines of dialogue, take on a significance in the grand scheme that maybe they didn't seem to have in the moment. This required a high level of detail, and at every stage that was delivered by everyone who worked on the show. Randall Einhorn, the brilliant and mysterious warrior king who directed our first two episodes, set a really high bar for us, along with our amazing production designer, Michael Shaw. What we may lack in conventional plot, we make up for in rich and highly detailed atmospherics, which allows our characters time to grow and develop. In the end, this show is about hanging out with our characters in ways familiar and strange.
Let's talk casting. Everyone is pretty unknown. Was that intentional as well?
The thing I'm most excited for in all this is people getting to know our cast. Wyatt Russell, Brent Jennings, Sonya Cassidy, Linda Emond, David Pasquesi, Eric Allan Kramer—they are all fucking amazing. Each has a unique comic gift, and each is capable of delivering an emotional gut punch. I know their performances will get lots of attention. The only sad part: They are all despicable people in real life. Lying, backstabbing, egotistical monsters. There was tons of acrimony on set, a constant mood of hatred and incipient violence. At one point, Pasquesi tried to kill a PA with his bare hands. Something about the temperature of his coffee. I forget the details. Our legal team arranged a settlement, and that PA is now a 2nd AD on a Marvel project, so it all worked out. Still, I'm worried if we get a second season this could all bubble over into some kind of bloody massacre. We'll see.
You once told me that all the most successful people feel like frauds. Do you still feel this way?
Not to be a total lawyer, brah, but I think I said that all the most talented people I know feel like frauds. Success isn't part of the equation for me. Success is a flukey, meaningless thing that has nothing to do with creation. The feeling of fraudulence comes sitting at the empty page or whatever else you're working on. It never gets easier. I was very lucky to publish a book, but it didn't make me a more confident writer. It had the opposite effect. I still feel this way. It only gets harder and harder, but I've learned to have some faith in my self-loathing and self-pity, knowing that it will crest at some point and in a state of exhaustion and disrepair I will get some crap down. As for TV, I think I'm here because I never imagined myself being here. In college, I would've loved to write for The Simpsons or something, but I thought that world belonged totally to people who were connected and way smarter than me. When I turned 30, I had mostly given up on writing. I hadn't written anything in years. My mom was dead. I had no money and no résumé. I felt totally lost, but if nothing else, I realized I still wanted to write—not to have a career—but to get down on paper the one or two stories I thought I could tell. I took an adult education class at UCLA Extension with Lou Mathews, and it changed my life. I was writing to find my voice. I never imagined it leading to anything like a career.
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