Category Archives: Television

Lodge 49: Understated Alchemy

Listen to my Lodge 49 Review podcast.

In a world where most TV shows (as well as movies) are cliche-ridden and predictable, Lodge 49 offers something truly original.

Lodge 49 refers to a Masonic-type organization with a fledgling headquarters in Long Beach, CA. While, on the surface, the lodge has the stodgy atmosphere of an Elk’s Club, with mostly older members who spend hours at the lodge’s bar and play lots of golf, there’s a mysterious background involving shadowy occult forces that a few members dabble in.

The story begins as Sean “Dud” Dudley (Wyatt Russell), a likable 30ish slacker, who’s unemployed and near-homeless, wanders into the lodge and discovers a sense of purpose as he meets the various eccentric members, starting with Ernie (Brent Jennings), a long-time member in his 50s who’s a bit disillusioned with the lodge and his life in general.

In at least one review, Dud has been compared to The Dude in The Big Lebowski (even his nickname is similar). This is fair but Lodge 49 is not even remotely derivative of that film or anything else. It has some elements in common with a range of shows that explore occult or supernatural themes. Unlike these mostly fast-paced and action-packed shows, however, Lodge 49 is understated to a fault. Don’t expect explosions, special effects, swords and sorcery, or people transforming into werewolves. There’s definitely magic afoot, but it remains in the background and doesn’t really start to assert itself until Season 2.

Much of the mystery is suggested in the theme music and the mystical artwork scattered on the lodge’s walls. Students of such lore will recognize tarot cards and various occult symbolism. The lodge’s resident mystic is Blaise (David Pasquesi) who’s even a healer/herbalist in his day job. However, his fascination with old alchemical texts and potions is tolerated rather than embraced by fellow members.

A great deal of the story focuses on Dud’s twin sister Liz (Sonya Cassidy), who has nothing to do with the lodge (at least until well into Season 2). She’s a misfit like her brother, but a very different type. While Dud can’t hold onto a job, she works diligently as a waitress at a Hooter’s-like bar called Shamrocks and tirelessly aims to pay off their deceased father’s debt.

There are numerous backstories involving Liz, including flashbacks involving their dad, and the careers and relationships of the other characters. In fact, part of Lodge 49’s charm is its slow pace and willingness to spend time with each character. A show like this could easily have been populated with a bunch of lovable but ultimately stock and sitcommish characters. Yet every member of the cast is fleshed out to reveal his or her foibles, dreams, and heartbreaks.

When you deal with a topic such as alchemy, there’s also the temptation to turn it into a supernatural/sci-fi genre piece (or, perhaps, a by-the-numbers paranormal mystery along the lines of The DaVinci Code and its many imitators). There’s nothing wrong with that approach but there are enough shows like that already. Lodge 49 charts its own course, finding an odd but captivating balance between drama, comedy, mystery, and just enough magic and mystery to keep us wondering. Even the characters go back and forth between belief and skepticism as during a series of episodes involving some alleged mysterious scrolls that reveal hidden secrets.

Whereas most shows dealing with paranormal elements get completely immersed in heroic quests and battles between good and evil, with Lodge 49, we never forget that we’re watching real people who are struggling with bills, difficult relationships, and everyday angst. Sometimes the pace is a bit slow but overall this adds to the authenticity and gives the more fantastical elements more credibility.

I won’t try to recount any more plot points as they are very complicated and almost secondary to the characters, setting and atmosphere. It’s the kind of show that’s clearly not for everyone. I’d suggest that if the first episode doesn’t pull you in, you probably won’t like it any better further in. While things speed up a bit in Season 2, it’s a very meandering and non-linear journey. At the same time, Lodge 49 doesn’t go to an extreme in the absurdist/existentialist/mumblecore directon (which has its own charms, to be fair). The characters are quirky but they do evolve and there is some forward movement, albeit in an unpredictable and circuitous manner.

The program, which first aired on AMC and is now available on Hulu, has run for 2 seasons with Season 3 apparently up in the air. It was canceled but there are rumors that another season is possible, which I hope happens. TV history, alas, suggests otherwise as the most innovative programs seldom survive more than a season or two (with exceptions, to be sure).

In summary, if you’re drawn to anything offbeat, give it a try!

For some insights into the motivations behind Lodge 49, here’s an interview with Jim Gavin, the creator.

Forever: Amazon Prime’s Experimental, Existential Dramedy

Warning: Mild spoiler alert (mild as this isn’t really a plot-driven show so major spoilers would be nearly impossible).

Amazon Prime has been entering the streaming TV competition (mainly against Netflix and Hulu) with a fury. While many of its shows are fairly standard genre fare: Jack Ryan is a familiar Cold War-type spy hero while Goliath is a legal thriller starring Billy Bob Thornton, Forever is something different: a low-key, experimental comedy/drama/fantasy.

Starring Saturday Night Live alumni Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, Forever takes a few episodes to establish its premise. The two stars play a married couple, June and Oscar, who are basically content with their lives. June, however, feels a certain amount of boredom and frustration with Oscar’s complacency -a recurring theme of the entire season.

The Afterlife as Suburban Limbo

Here’s the closest thing to a genuine spoiler: both Oscar and June die and relocated to an afterlife that’s like a less populated version of a Southern California suburb. Nothing much happens in Forever, which is unusual for American television. The two explore their relationship, interact with a few other characters in the afterlife (including one played by Catherine Keener, a fixture in many indie films since the 90s).

I appreciate the effort behind shows such as Forever, as I’m sure anyone is who is simply tired of the same old rom-coms, thrillers, and special effects-driven superhero shows and movies that dominate popular culture today. However, I can’t say I was especially captivated by Forever. As I mentioned, not much happens here and the conversations and self-reflection are only interesting up to a point. It’s kind of like a mid-life crisis played out in the Afterlife. I doubt if a show like this would get much attention, or even a chance to air if it didn’t have star power behind it. Because Armisen and Rudolph are so familiar and we associate them with cutting-edge culture, we might be more patient with the lackluster material than we might otherwise be.

There’s nothing terrible about the show and it’s certainly watchable. At the same time, it isn’t particularly funny, suspenseful, or moving. The closest thing to suspense is the viewer’s instinct to believe that something is sure to happen sooner or later. That’s why the word “existentialist” came to mind. It does rather capture the state of mind people might have in Limbo, though the afterlife here is never given that name – or any name. That’s another odd thing about the show -this is an extremely vague vision of the Afterlife.

There’s, as I mentioned, a sparsely populated suburban landscape. Then they discover another place where dead people “live” -a kind of mansion where residents party and symbolically burn all ties to the past (i.e. their actual lives). So one theme of the show is the question of whether it’s better to retain your memories or live in an eternal present. Yet nothing seems to be at stake here. There’s no suggestion of great rewards or damnation (or the possibility or reincarnating).

One whole episode abandons the main characters completely and focuses on another couple, two married people who are having an affair. This episode is well done but has no connection to anything that comes before or after. The only link is that, at the end, we see June observing them, apparently motivating her to travel with Kase (Keener) away from the burbs to the more glamorous neighborhood. There’s an intimation that the two might be attracted to each other but this possibility doesn’t play out.

In some ways, Forever is the diametrical opposite of another contemporary show about the Afterlife: The Good Place. Whereas that show is full of rules and explanations (from where much of the humor is derived), Forever is like a Twilight Zone episode where you never find out what’s really going on. You might say the vagueness of their situation makes it more creative and open to interpretation. On the other hand, you could just as easily say it’s a bit lazy, leaving viewers to wonder where the hell (pun intended?) they really are and why.

The Afterlife as a Continuation of Middle-Class Privilege?

One reaction, that I had at times, is to roll your eyes at this vision of privilege (perhaps an overused word these days) – that comfortable, upper-middle-class people with few serious problems will just keep on like that forever, living in a spacious suburban home with all their material (or perhaps immaterial) needs automatically met. Of course, many shows focus on the affluent or at least comfortable. To digress a bit, a good example is Modern Family. At the same time that it revels in its message of embracing diversity, it’s all within the rubric of comfortable, property-owning professionals. However, the metaphysical pretensions of Forever put it in another category. Any portrayal of an Afterlife, unless otherwise specified, implies that this is where everyone goes. Of course, the extreme insularity of these characters’ situation deliberately cuts off contemplation of universal concerns. Like characters in 19th century English and Russian novels, their main challenge is boredom.

Is This All There Is?

The ending of Forever (another very mild spoiler alert!) suggests that Oscar and June can expand their reality if they become a bit more adventurous. In other words, just perhaps, there could be a version of the Afterlife that’s not an endless continuation of suburban ennui. Will Forever continue for another season? As of now, it’s uncertain. According to Bustle, “probably not.” It’s hard to care too much as the first season didn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger.

It’s probably best not to read too much into Forever (advice I clearly didn’t follow). It’s probably more a metaphor for modern middle-class life, mid-life crises, and relationships than a true exploration of eschatology. It’s almost incidental that June and Oscar are dead. What the show is really asking is, how can they wake up and rediscover themselves in a society that encourages a kind of sleepwalking? Taken this way, the show is fairly interesting if not exactly mind-blowing.

Exporting Raymond -Russian vs. American TV

Exporting Raymond is an entertaining documentary about a clash of cultures that occurs over a sitcom. Phil Rosenthal is the creator of the popular CBS show Everybody Loves Raymond. He was recently invited to visit Russia so they could adapt the show for their audiences. The results were a strange and sometimes funny mixed bag.

I have to confess that I’ve never watched Everybody Loves Raymond and am not a fan of sitcoms. I simply cannot watch anything with a laugh track. It seems like an oxymoron if you have to tell people when to laugh. So, for me the main interest of this documentary was watching the inner workings of creating television and, of course, the cultural issues.

From the start, there were difficulties in adapting the show in Russia. The show portrays a down to earth, middle class American family, and, as it soon became clear, Russia is not quite the same. This resulted in many frustrating attempts at communication between Rosenthal and his Russian counterparts. For example, a costume designer informs Rosenthal that Russian women like to dress up, but he can’t fathom a housewife looking like she’s going out to a nightclub.

This type of debate was amusing, though I also found it a little perplexing. Rosenthal seemed unable to accept that the show couldn’t be transplanted “as is” and still be popular with Russian audiences. Why does he care so much about realism when we’re talking about a sitcom?

Looking at it from the other side of the coin, I wondered why the Russians were even interested in this show in the first place if it was so culturally alien to them. The problems were deeper than simply how the characters dressed. Apparently, the character of Raymond was too passive for Russian audiences, who don’t like to see men pushed around by their wives, even in jest (at least according to the Russians who Rosenthal dealt with on this project).

There are some interesting insights into how Russian television operates. Apparently, actors must work much harder than in America, and the same people must work around the clock on different sets. We can assume they earn considerably less money too.

Exporting Raymond is a documentary that will appeal to a variety of people -obviously to fans of the show; those with an interest in culture clashes, and anyone who would like an inside look at the entertainment industry.

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    Portlandia -Land of Slackers, Bobos and Hipsters

    I recently watched the entire first season of Portlandia on Netflix streaming. Prior to this, I had never heard of the show. It began last year on IFC (Independent Film Channel), which, along with the Sundance Channel, is one of the few cable channels that provides alternatives to the generic Hollywood blockbusters that dominate most of the movie stations. Unfortunately (or maybe not, for the most part), I only have basic cable so I’ve missed out on the latest IFC offerings.

    I immediately found Portlandia to be a funny, refreshing and original series that is way more inspired than the typically bland sketch comedy you’ll find on network shows like Saturday Night Live (even though co-star Fred Armisen is a SNL cast member -but he’s one of the writers and producers of Portlandia).

    While this show is, on the surface, a satirical look at a certain subculture of Portland, it’s really a lot more than that. For one thing, the type of people it mocks are certainly found in many other places. Brooklynites have recognized some of the hipster stereotypes, and, in true postmodern form, a parody of this parody called Brokelandia has already appeared on the internet. You’ll also find the type of slackers, bobos, the tediously politically correct and militant vegetarians in towns like Santa Cruz, Boulder and parts of the Hudson Valley region of New York (where I currently reside), such as Woodstock and New Paltz.

    Most of the skits feature co-creators Fred Armisten and Carrie Brownstein, who are adept at playing everything from obnoxious yuppies to hardcore feminists. There are also notable guest stars. In one episode, indie film favorite Steve Buscemi wanders into a feminist bookstore staffed by Carrie and Fred (in drag), who refuse to let him use the bathroom until he buys something.

    In another great skit, singer Aimee Mann appears as a housecleaner being harassed by the two co-stars, who alternately fawn over her and accuse her of misdeeds such as stealing. What I appreciate about the acting and writing of such skits is that they contain equal parts truth and over-the-top parody. In fact, I can’t recall more sharply written sketch comedy since the Tracy Ullman show (from whence the Simpsons originated) back in the 90s. She also had a knack for capturing the inflections of the tediously hip bourgeoisie.

    Aside from yuppies/bobos and political activists, the series also pokes fun at the chronically unambitious and underemployed. As one character says in the very first episode, “Portland is where young people come to retire.”

    Portlandia does not exactly portray a realistic cross section of Portland, or any other place, nor does it try to. I haven’t spent much time in Portland, but it’s safe to assume that it’s inhabited by regular working folks, conservative churchgoers and even some rednecks along with the bobos, slackers and hipsters portrayed in the show. That’s okay, though, as the point is to hone in on a particular set of stereotypes.

    Although Portlandia is satire that has some bite, it’s unlikely to offend any of the city’s denizens, except perhaps those that are truly humor challenged. I can confess that before watching this series Portland was fairly high up on my list of places I’d consider moving to, and the show certainly hasn’t changed my mind about this. I can only hope that it doesn’t make the place so hip that it drives rents and real estate values through the roof!

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