Opting Out of Ambition

This hang-out comedy offers some surprising parallels to church life

Since television shows began airing 60-odd years ago, there have been two main categories: comedy and drama. Plenty of aspects distinguish one from the other – laugh tracks, number of cameras – but perhaps the most important is length. Comedies, we’ve come to expect, are 30 minutes long (well, including commercials – remember those?) while dramas run for one hour. The assumption being, I suppose, that dramas need more time to be serious while comedies can resolve their silly little plots in the time the pizza guy to deliver your large with extra cheese and pepperoni.

In the last decade or so, a number of comedies have tried to shake up this format. Half hour shows like Atlanta¸ Russian Doll and Catastrophe have made the radical attempt of, well, not being funny. Long stretches of these shows involve little in the way of humour, at least of the kind we’ve come to expect from sitcoms, and instead focus on quieter moments of reflection and character development. In the midst of this formal development, the hour-long drama sometimes comes across as comparatively lacking in innovation. Sure, Tony Soprano plumbed the depths of human depravity, but could you imagine him doing an all-musical episode?

A different sort of comedy
Into this mix comes Lodge 49, which recently started its second season on AMC. It sure looks like a drama, with each episode running for an hour. There are also plenty of the trappings we’ve come to expect from “prestige” shows: shadow societies carrying long-held secrets, economic instability, corrupt real estate deals. But at its heart, the show feels like a hangout comedy, along the lines of Cheers. Every episode, a group of misfits come together to chat, share jokes, and drink cheap beer.

The show takes place in Long Beach, far from the more glamorous California locales we’ve come to expect from shows set in the Golden State. Dud is a surfer who’s down on his luck. His father, the proprietor of a pool supplies shop where Dud worked, has died in a surfing accident. Plus, his ankle is injured following a nasty snakebite, which keeps him out of the water. With nothing to do for work or leisure, he needs to find something to devote himself to.

He finds it in the Benevolent Order of the Lynx, a fraternal organization along the lines of the Freemasons. Lodges like this were all the rage back in the 1950s, but today, it’s fallen on hard times. Membership has fallen, with the median age around 50 – not unlike many churches. But Dud takes to the lodge quickly, and with more faith than some of the longtime members. The founder of the Order of the Lynx was one of those wacky British aristocrats who used his wealth to pursue his esoteric interests, claiming that he knew how to practice alchemy. Dud is convinced he can do the same.

An unlikely pair
Ernie is a longtime member of the Lodge who is tasked to be the “knight” to Dud’s “squire.” Ernie takes all the talk about alchemy and ancient wisdom to be strictly metaphorical. For him, the Lodge’s true purpose is offering a sense of community to people who, in the grim socioeconomic landscape of 2019, find it in short supply.

Dud and Ernie have adventures, of a sort. They pursue business deals; they look for elusive titans of industry; they investigate the mysterious origins of the Lodge. But mostly, they hang out. They go the donut shop. They take long drives. They drink watered down beer at the Lodge which, like many a megachurch, has a bar attached to it, where members run up tabs. They sing way too loud at the Lodge karaoke party. They’re friends, and thanks to the common denominator of the Lodge, they have the time and space to pursue that friendship.

Friendship and leisure
Which is what feels so innovative about the show. So many hour-long dramas are either about work, with characters devoting their whole lives to their jobs, or they feel like work, with so many plotlines and Easter eggs that viewers have to consult Wikipedia just to keep up. Against all that work done in the name of entertainment, Lodge 49 opts out of such ambition. It is the rare show that posits that the most meaningful experiences in daily life come not from work, but from leisure.

What does this have to do with faith?
It made me think of American churches. So much of what you’ll see and hear on a typical Sunday sounds like work, with sermons outlining five important biblical rules to apply to one’s life. All well and good, of course. But what about fun? What about merely hanging out? People have a deep need to relax, and institutions like churches, and lodges, are in position to give them the space to do precisely that.

A church, in a way, can seem like an hour-long drama. You go into it with certain expectations. It should be serious, with not too much frivolity in the way of pastor jokes or light shows. It should give you a practical lesson you can live out the rest of the week. It should make you feel a certain way, such that you’ll want to come back the next week. But maybe church can offer something other than such “serious” things. Maybe it can be a place where you keep in touch with people you wouldn’t see otherwise, make and maintain relationships with a depth of the kind that is far trickier to maintain in other settings. Who knows, maybe it could even have karaoke night?

  • Adam’s work has appeared in many venues, including the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature and Real Life. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and two daughters.

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