There’s something so cruel about California’s beauty. A lot of somethings, actually: Sundappled beaches alongside skyrocketing housing costs, short miles gridlocking long hours into eternal rush hour, boom industries fading, culturally profound neighborhoods gentrifying, rains that won’t come, fires that will.
AMC’s Lodge 49 is one of the brightest-looking shows on TV. It’s set in Long Beach, Calif., a port city imagined with radiant ocean blues and golf course greens. Wyatt Russell stars as nomadic ex-surfer Dud, and Russell himself is one California Dream: seafoam shirt, perpetual flip-flops, blonde Dennis Wilson beard framed by golden Beach Jesus locks, that wild hair atop a lanky-tall frame collectively suggesting a palm tree topped with sunshine fronds. But Dud is suffering, and so is his whole world. On Lodge 49, the good life is right here but long gone, a beach with a full parking lot, a job you just got fired from.
Last year, a snake bit Dud’s ankle, and his wound hasn’t healed. That origin sentence fell-swoops three flavors of myth: Edenic serpent, Achilles’ foot problems, the Fisher King maimed in perpetual agony. Lodge 49 isn’t quite a supernatural series, but Dud’s injury implicitly extends to (or reflects back from) a broken society around him. Dud’s father died on a mysterious swim, leaving his sister Liz (Sonya Cassidy) to inherit Dad’s crippling debt. Death plus debt closed the family’s pool supply store, now an empty storefront awaiting tenants: Right here, long gone. And Long Beach suffers. Aerospace factories and office parks go empty from layoffs. Oil derricks dot the landscape, leftover from half-remembered booms. Billboards around town ask “Is There Another Way To Live?” It’s an advertisement for redevelopment, maybe, or maybe the answer is just “No.”
Dud’s life changes when he discovers the Ancient and Benevolent Order of the Lynx, a Freemason-ish society with headquarters in London and a spiritual philosophy rooted in alchemy. The local Lynx outpost, Lodge 49, was once a bustling community center. Now it’s fallen on hard times, its membership middle-aged and jobless. But the first wonderful thing about Lodge 49 is how seriously it takes the unifying possibility of even the most broken community. The Lodge has a bar, and ceremonies the members all celebrate even while they smirk at the mysticism. There is a recurring Band Night where a local harbor patrolman plays surf rock with an outfit called Don Fab and the Longshoreman.
Dud very Holy Fool-ishly falls under the Lodge’s spell. Two other characters have more complicated perspectives. His Lynx “mentor” is Ernie (Brent Jennings), a 59-year-old industrial plumbing salesman. A lifetime jobber in the line of work Arthur Miller wrote American tragedies about, Ernie’s on the hunt for a big score. His quest follows that redevelopment, those billboards, and a mysterious local business tycoon only known as “Captain.” In Lodge 49‘s playful-sincere treatment, the Pursuit of a Real Big Toilet Supply Sale has become a season-long mytharc. When Ernie finds Captain in episode 8, he declares: “Here I am at the center of the maze!” That could be a line from Westworld or Legion, but only on Lodge 49 does a metaphorical maze end with Bruce Campbell in a kiddie pool pouring himself a Blood Mary under the desert sun.
Jennings, a journeyman actor in everything since the ’80s, is fabulous. Ernie could just be the buddy-cop superego opposite Dud’s id, but the more you watch Lodge 49, the more you suspect he’s the real hero. He’s got the romantic subplot, a renewed affair with his long-ago high school sweetheart Connie (Linda Emond). Connie’s a Lynx. So is her husband, Scott (Eric Allan Kramer), who also happens to be Ernie’s main competition for the job of Sovereign Protector, the fancy Lynx term for Lodge chieftain.
Or the hero could be Liz, Dud’s sister, a person so cynical you imagine she must just be reading all the headlines we are. Liz works at Shamroxx, basically Hooters but more Irish. Lodge 49‘s first season, which ends next Monday, has sent its characters on zig-zag tangent journeys; there was a mummy, some secret scrolls lost in Mexico, that one time an oil derrick pumpjack turned into a dragon. Liz’ arc has been relatively “normal,” climbing the professional ladder from waitress to executive class, Cassidy greeting every incident with a fiery humor that might be suicidal depression.
But on Lodge 49, capitalist normality is the height of surrealism, another language people only pretend to speak. Liz attends a corporate seminar whose philosophy is itself a kind of alchemy. “A bullwhip, a chalice, a snow globe!” proclaims a cultish executive (Vik Sahay). “Out of these objects, you will dreamstorm a marketing plan for your shadowchain!”
AMC dreamstormed an unusual marketing plan for Lodge 49‘s shadowchain, releasing the entire series on the AMC Premiere service while also playing it weekly after Better Call Saul. The Walking Dead network has been angling in funky directions this year, with the frozen slow-burn horror of The Terror and the headline-ripping surrealism of Dietland. The latter was canceled. The former lost viewers. Lodge 49‘s ratings haven’t been high. Maybe it’s a tough sell. Creator Jim Gavin kersmashes a thousand different ideas into Lodge 49, and some of the whimsies can feel weightless. The early episodes took time to find their groove, and as with anything aiming for “Tragicomic Magical Realism,” there’s a running danger that everything will go flying off the rails. (Wait till you see what happens to Bruce Campbell.) It’s my favorite new drama of the year, but right up until the final moments of the season finale (airing Oct. 8) I would’ve believed it was actually a comedy.
In an age of blandly bleak big TV, Gavin and showrunner Peter Ocko have produced a sweetly humane portrait of community, alive with strangeness, brutal pessimism, the possibility of better days ahead. In the splendid season 1 finale, Ernie gets one kind of final word. “I have to grind just to make it month to month,” he tells Dud. “I’m not a knight. I’m a toilet salesman.” In Lodge 49‘s sweetly grand vision, he’s both.
Season 1 of Lodge 49 concludes Monday, Oct. 8 (at 10 p.m. ET) on AMC.