On a recent spring afternoon, an endless blue sky over a deserted beach seemed to offer a snapshot of Southern California’s idyllic promise. But look past the waving palm trees and the picture changed.
There, on the horizon, a flotilla of oil tankers dragged a gloomy thumbprint across an otherwise postcard-worthy view, and high winds made life difficult for a TV crew on a bluff above the shore.
On a concrete bench overlooking the coast, a rumpled man in ill-fitting khakis (played by James Urbaniak) counseled a dark-haired young woman (Sonya Cassidy) fighting to keep hair and grit out of her eyes as cameras close around them. “The abyss isn’t death,” he told her. “It’s just a fable that God made up to keep us away from the truth.” With that, he walked away, and in the silence that followed it was hard to tell whether this supposed psychic’s words should be taken as profound or nonsensical.
Welcome to Long Beach, and to the weird, rewarding contradictions of AMC’s “Lodge 49,” a series that returns for its second season Monday but remains very tough to describe.
“I really don’t know, other than it is about the dichotomy of the life we all live,” said Wyatt Russell, who plays protagonist Sean “Dud” Dudley, ex-surfer and formerly aimless “knight” of the Ancient and Benevolent Order of the Lynx. On the sofa between us, Snowball, Russell’s fluffy mini-husky, vied for our attention. “Every day you’re going to experience greatness, you’re going to experience joy and you’re going to experience pain in some way, shape or form.”
With his long hair, blond beard and slacker’s bearing, Dud drew comparisons to The Dude, of “Big Lebowski” fame, upon the show’s debut. But that doesn’t do justice to the more earthy eccentricities of “Lodge 49.”
“My best pitch is, it’s a great show if you don’t own a television,” Russell added with a grin. “It’ll be your favorite show on TV if you don’t own a TV.”
That kind of tag line won’t delight AMC’s marketing department, but it speaks to the meandering, novelistic nature of the show. Mixing comedy, drama and touches of fantasy, ranging in tone from heartfelt to philosophical to happily absurd, the series, co-created by Jim Gavin and Peter Ocko, revels in the unsettled nature of its time.
On one hand, “Lodge 49” is an intimately drawn, leisurely paced series about the past-its-prime fraternal order and its hopeful savior. On the other, it’s a show about late-stage capitalism, the decline of the middle class and two siblings who must reckon with the crushing debt and existential uncertainty that come with the sudden death of their father.
It may be the funniest tragedy — or perhaps most tragic comedy — on television. But for a show that’s primarily filmed in Georgia, it also captures the diverse, idiosyncratic nature of its setting as few shows ever have.
“There’s a certain mood and feeling to [Long Beach] that I’ve always been drawn to,” said Gavin, who was born in the city and raised in nearby Orange. On set in a hooded sweatshirt and Lynx baseball cap, he pointed toward the place where, not that long ago, he lived in a $700 a month studio just blocks from the ocean — a seemingly impossible (yet very Long Beach) price for beachfront access. Reached by phone after the “Lodge 49” panel at the Television Critics Assn. biannual press tour in Beverly Hills, he talked about the series’ connection to the port city. Though only 10% of the new season was shot on location, “Lodge 49” excels at capturing its setting, from its hazy light to its distinctive spirit, which balances beach-combing ease with a working-class backbone far removed from the glitz that shapes so much of neighboring Los Angeles.
“The history of Long Beach is very much the history of postwar America … a thriving suburban place with a lot of industry, mostly aerospace, and thriving public institutions,” Gavin says. “It’s now a city that’s trying to find its new identity at a time when the sense of the future is very tenuous.”
Ocko, who credits a strategically placed decal of two palm trees for the convincingly Southern Californian quality of the show’s mini-mall donut shop (which is also in Georgia), has found that — for all of Long Beach’s struggles — the charm of its low-slung homes, sun-blasted skies and proximity to the Pacific remains. “Within about five days of the trip here, most of the people we bring from Atlanta are looking for apartments,” he said.
Still, the halting nature of Long Beach’s evolution since the end of its industrial heyday mirrors the characters of “Lodge 49.” Cassidy’s Liz Dudley, Dud’s sister, was a waitress at a Hooters-like sports bar before falling into its corporate leadership program — a twisted, cultish world of nonsensical buzzwords and bizarre rituals, which she escaped by jumping off a harbor cruise with her fellow trainees. Dud’s mentor, Ernie (played with understated, dignified pathos by Brent Jennings), is a plumbing-supply salesman who nearly landed a top-dollar corporate client last season — before it disappeared in the shell game of the new economy.
“I think of Ernie as a young guy stuck in an old man’s body, because he’s always open to try things, and he’s still trying to get what he thinks he wants in life, which changes,” the soft-spoken Jennings said. “We have our expectations and we look up at one point and say, ‘Does where I am now in any way meet those expectations and can I challenge myself to do more? Or do I challenge myself to accept who I am now as the best that I can do?’”
The British-born Cassidy, who prior to “Lodge 49” was seen in imported sci-fi and costume dramas, says her appreciation for the sarcastic, seemingly self-destructive Liz is that capacity for acceptance. It’s part of how she found herself admiring Liz for taking her chances overboard rather than chasing the security of a corporate gig.
“I really respected her in that moment,” Cassidy said in a phone call. “I think there’s a lot of people who will find themselves going down the path that has appeared in front of them that they didn’t really think they wanted, but they’re just going to kick along. Liz doesn’t kick along down the wrong path.
“There’s something I talked about with Jim and Peter that there is a lovely kind of lack of aspiration in the Dudleys,” she added. “They’d be quite happy living a content, secure life in Long Beach. But, of course, having a simple, quiet, secure life is not an easy thing now.”
Her impression bears out in Season 2 when Dud is asked what he would do with his life if he could do anything he wanted. His answer, while very funny in the moment, is endearingly earnest in its simplicity.
“We always say we’re the least aspirational show on TV,” Gavin jokes when asked about that exchange. “Dud and Liz’s attitude is one that’s kind of familiar to me. The things that make me happy have never been connected to money or having a certain status.”
Heading into the new season, “Lodge 49” remains stubbornly off-kilter. Heartened after surviving a shark attack, Dud starts cleaning pools again, albeit with a very on-brand business model, and both the Dudleys must reckon with a new tenant occupying their late father’s storefront: another family-run pool business.
Bronson Pinchot shows up as Liz’s shady new boss, and executive producer Paul Giamatti at last appears onscreen as a Clive Cussler-esque writer of spy thrillers. (“He was raring to go,” Gavin says of Giamatti’s move from behind the scenes.) Then there’s the lodge, which remains under threat with new, more-regimented leadership, but will ultimately begin to reveal its mystical secrets. The series continues to resist easy comparisons, which is fine with Gavin.
“We compartmentalize things in stories and books and movies. Things are one way or the other,” he said. “In life, those things always live side by side. Some of the hardest I’ve ever laughed have been during the darkest moments; moments that have seemed like the happiest moments of my life, there’s a tinge of melancholy that I don’t understand. For me that just feels natural.”
“What I love about our cast so much is they all seem to get that. They know those notes, you don’t play one and then the other — they’re played together in kind of a weird, funny, melancholy harmony,” he added. “That’s kind of the sound of the show.”
When: 10:10 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)