“On some days, all of the beautiful things in my life break my heart.”
Set in Long Beach, Calif., the story centers on Dud, a surfer kept from the water by injury (snake bite in Season 1, shark bite in Season 2); his more practical, equally lost sister Liz (Sonya Cassidy); Dud’s friend and sometimes reluctant mentor, Ernie (Brent Jennings), a plumbing supplies salesman; and the Ancient and Benevolent Order of the Lynx, the quasi-Masonic organization into which Dud stumbles at the start of Season 1, and the family he finds there.
“Home,” the poet wrote, “is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in” — as much as they may hate to. On that premise, countless situation comedies, dramas and reality shows have been launched. Indeed, most television shows are at bottom about family. “Seinfeld,” “The Office,” “Friends,” all are family comedies, really. Every workplace comedy, every quirky small-town comedy, is also a family comedy. Their characters are not necessarily related, but are more than usually bonded: a tribe to which outsiders are admitted only with suspicion or ceremony. (That’s why it’s always a little creepy when regulars in such shows become romantically involved; you might be set up to want it to happen, but you know deep down it’s wrong.)
“Succession,” HBO’s much-tweeted-over successor to “Game of Thrones” is explicitly a story about family, and though they are all terrible selfish people, they are tied together by something more primal than money or power. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag,” which stormed the Emmys this year, is a story of sisters and their father, the distraction of Andrew Scott’s Hot Priest notwithstanding. “Sex and the City” was “Little Women.” “Game of Thrones” — family. “NCIS” — family. Vampire slayer Buffy and her Scooby Gang, and all Scooby Gangs back to the original: You guessed it.
Dud and Liz, protective of each other in sometimes critical ways, lose their father early in Season 1, and their mother long before our story begins, and that loss is not yet lived through. Ernie, to whose lodge “knight” Dud is a “squire,” is a brother and a father figure to him; Liz, meanwhile, latches on to Lenore (Bertila Damas), a flight attendant who knew their father, for clues about her long-dead mother. Dud is at times distracted because he’s a dreamer and Liz because she is a responsible person fated to take care of other people’s business. Though things often go wrong for them, one senses that the cosmos is on their side.
“Lodge 49" is a show about goodness and pure intentions — Dud is a sort of Prince Myshkin, or Leslie Knope if you prefer — the exercise of which it does not treat with irony or cynicism. That doesn’t mean it’s not full of conflict. Characters go back and forth wondering who they are and what they’re meant to do and whether what they do means anything at all. (A few are less than good, to be sure, with impure intentions; this is not “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”) Most are stuck in old ways, looking for a way forward. All are looking for a place to belong.
It’s a spiritual show, with a generous definition of what might comprise spirituality, constantly nudging its characters toward a state of appreciation, of being present, of opening their eyes — even if that means (literally) blindfolding them. Doors and trapdoors are a motif. They may lead to secret rooms, where secret knowledge awaits, or to Antarctica, or to a random backyard; there is also a good bit of falling through floors or into holes. Enough that you can take it as a symbol or a sign.
The show is invested in myths and legends. Whether the particular quest on which Dud & Co. embarked in the latest season — they’re in search of “lost scrolls” — is meaningful or meaningless, the point is that even a meaningless quest is meaningful, because it’s, you know, a quest. There are references to tilters-at-windmills Don Quixote and Sancho Panza — knights and squires! — including a rendition (in French, in Mexico) of “The Impossible Dream.”
And much that seems big proves hollow at its core, or at least merely life-sized: little men and women behind their various curtains. Captain, a mysterious real estate developer from Season 1 who is spoken of with habitual awe, turns out to be Bruce Campbell in a hot tub. Liz goes to punch Janet (Olivia Sandoval), who has stiffed the employees at the restaurant Liz manages, and Janet turns out to be a hologram. When Liz catches up with the real thing, Janet confesses, “When I was a kid, I dreamed of starting a global brand, putting my stamp on every continent. But instead, I’m the CEO of a regional conglomerate. It’s sad.”
Businesses collapse; big deals evaporate. Lenore is involved in an Amway-like pyramid scheme in which bitcoin, imaginary money, plays a part. “Anything is possible” is a refrain of the second season, but not necessarily: The famous writer of thrillers who falls in with our heroes (extravagantly played by Paul Giamatti, an executive producer of the series) claims that whatever he writes he knows — that is, he assumes that if he can write it, he can also do it. This belief will prove disastrously, though not fatally, untrue.
The lodge is a refuge from all that, a place where small things become big. “Outside these walls, the world can be a cold, cold place,” Ernie says near the close of the second season, going on to echo something Dud says in the first: “But in here, when we’re all together, it’s different. It’s different in here.”
One distinguishing quality of Long Beach, whence hails creator Jim Gavin, also a writer of short stories, is that it is not Los Angeles. “Lodge 49" pays tribute in a nonpatronizing way to all Southern California that isn’t Los Angeles. There are references to Fountain Valley and Fullerton, to the old Costa Mesa punk-rock palace the Cuckoo’s Nest that will mean more locally than abroad — as well as a nod to the late, great Huell Howser (“Do the words ‘California’s Gold’ mean nothing to you?”). But the very sound of them gives the flavor of the patchwork of small-town suburbs that sit cheek to cheek in the sprawl. Remembering his days “on the road,” out selling, Ernie reminisces: “Sometime at dusk I’d be at the top of a transitional loop and I’d see the whole city down below; lights going on, sun going down and the fire out over the ocean. It was beautiful.”
Recognition of beauty is at the heart of the series, teased by a soundtrack of new and old psychedelia and ’60s British folk rock. (A perfectly placed recording by Fairport Convention of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” moved me to tears.) Visions may or may not be real, given that the show likes to keep things ambiguous and that a character might also be on drugs or delirious, but they are always significant. Sometimes the magic is more: Liz’s vision of Antarctica leaves real snow on her shoulders and gives her a taste for freezers and dreams of blizzards. The last remaining member of the Mexican Lodge 55 El Confidente, played in a lovely performance by Cheech Marin, paints scenes that come true, either because he can see the future or his paintings can create it.
“You know,” Dud asks him. “If you can create the future, could you do me a favor? Maybe could you paint me somewhere down the line after my leg’s all healed and we get the scrolls, my bills are paid, and it’s like I’m somewhere at the beach with my wife or just someone special? And I don’t know. Maybe we have a kid? And Liz is there, Ernie and whoever else wants to come and hang. It’s just like another day at the beach, but it’s the day of days.”
In the painting of the future I’d like to come true, “Lodge 49" comes back for another season — just one more, I think, because this feels like a trilogy to me; the arc of its arcs bends toward conclusion. You can kill a plant with too much water as well as too little, and as much as I love these characters, I would not want to consign them to whatever fresh dilemmas the writers would have to concoct for them in Season 4 or 5 or 6 or 7. They are too good, too real, too much on a road to somewhere for that.
Barring that, if “Lodge 49” loses its lease on television, leaving our friends hanging from this and that cliff, I have an idea for your next book, Mr. Gavin.
Where: AMC Premium
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17 with an advisory for coarse language)