For a leisurely-paced show that values mood and feeling over action, the second season of Lodge 49, which returns Monday, kicks off really intensely. In a cold open, its two heroes Dud (Wyatt Russell) and Ernie (Brent Jennings) are on a plane that's about to crash. The pilot, played by the show's producer Paul Giamatti, says that there are three parachutes left, and then, immediately, someone dressed up in a mascot costume, wearing a planet-shaped head that is also on fire, jumps out of the plane. (The show can be heavy on the metaphors). The two heroes share a parachute and the screen fades to a title card that says "Six weeks earlier." If that sounds confusing, it's supposed to be. The AMC show rarely ever provides answers or even a cogent plot. But that's the point. Lodge 49 is all about the journey of its characters trying to find a better life in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It can be a disorienting watch, but it's one of the most rewarding shows on TV.
The dramedy's first season (which is streaming on Hulu) is a masterful slow burn that follows a down-and-out surfer dude named Shaun "Dud" Dudley as he recovers from a traumatic snake bite, grieves the death of his father, and deals with the foreclosure of his family's Long Beach pool shop. He finds a mysterious ring on the beach belonging to the Order of the Lynx (think the Elks Club but with way more beer and oddball mythology), and believes the universe is calling him to join the social club, which meets at the series' titular lodge. Russell charms with his earnest portrayal of Dud, a happy-go-lucky and affable performance that draws comparisons to "the Dude" in The Big Lebowski.
The rest of the cast excels too. Take Sonya Cassidy, who shines as Liz, Dud's debt-ridden and reckless sister, or Jennings who plays Ernie, a depressed plumbing supplies salesman, Lynx member, and Dud's best friend with soft-spoken grace. They both humanely play these characters who have also been beaten down by layoffs, debt, dead-end jobs, and bad luck. The show's real pleasures come from its inherent kindness: how in the face of horrible circumstances, these characters try to find joy and community in mundane moments together. A scene in this season's second episode finds Dud consoling Ernie, dejected from a demotion at his dead-end job, saying, "You're in a bad place. And I think the best thing for me to do is to get wasted." It's a small moment, but it's one that highlights the show's big heart.
While it's a modest, lower-budget affair compared to AMC's other shows like The Walking Dead and the also-returning horror-fantasy The Terror, the second season of Lodge 49 is just as essential as its peers. Shortly into the first episode of the new season, Ernie wonders to his boss, "Do you ever get the feeling that you made the wrong turn? Like, your life could be something else?" Every character has seen better days at the season's start. Liz, fresh off a degrading job at a Hooters-like restaurant, has taken up temping and dating bad exes. After a shark bit his leg at the season one finale, Dud somehow maintains his optimism, but is thrown for a loop when new tenants move into his family's old storefront. Even the ever-struggling lodge, under the leadership of the hard-nosed Scott (Eric Allan Kramer), is under so much financial pressure that every Lynx member has to finally pay their bar tab. Lodge 49 tactfully deals with the degradation of finding happiness in an unfeeling economy, but really it's about the grounding importance of relationships.
Though the series has larger, long-unfolding plot arcs, like the mysteries of the lodge and what the Order of the Lynx is really all about, those concerns seem secondary to the relationships between its characters. Dud and Ernie's friendship is a joy to watch evolve, with Ernie's dour outlook the perfect foil for Dud's ceaseless hopefulness. Even Scott, who a lesser show would paint as a villain, gets a three-dimensional and sympathetic treatment. It's rare a show actually likes and empathizes with its heroes, and the fact that there is no good vs. bad dichotomy is one of series creator Jim Gavin and showrunner Peter Ocko's strongest narrative assets.
Lodge 49 is one of television's weirder offerings, seamlessly shifting from absurdist comedy to crushing drama. But no matter how the show plays with genre, at its core it's a welcome opportunity for a low-stakes hangout with eccentric and real characters. Its alluring alchemy of all these disparate things works so well that it doesn't matter that it's never really plot-driven. Dreams and visions also factor into the series' inherent surrealism: there's a hallucination of a puzzling donkey unicorn and characters frequently disassociate to daydream of better times. Every episode is a bizarre but visually stunning trip.
Showrunner Peter Ocko summed up the show at a recent Television Critics Association press conference, saying, "We see Lodge 49 as a good place to come in from the storm." There is an inviting solidarity to the show. Its characters are all outcasts, burned by economic and personal instability, but there's resilience in their quest for something better. Dud is trying to find purpose, and he believes that the lodge can help him figure it out. In episode one, he gravitates toward the mantra “The universe is good and I am on the right path.” Lodge 49 proves that that hope, while it may not be true, is worth holding onto.