When the actors of Animal Kingdom talk about why they like to film in Oceanside, the word “grit” comes up a lot. The TNT drama steeped in drug use and debauchery just finished its fourth season.
That’s their nice way of saying that while Oceanside has largely outgrown its tawdry reputation, it’s appropriate that a hit TV series set in Oceanside has some gritty story lines.
Like when the mom of the Cody crime family has her son murdered on The Strand.
“As far as putting us on the path of Hollywood, I guess it's a good thing,” says Dale, who runs an Oceanside deli and meat shop. “But if it sends the message that Oceanside is overrun by drugs and that we’re owned by the cartels, I don’t think we need that. It is not a good message for Oceanside.”
Officially, the city of Oceanside is bullish that the Warner Bros. drama about the crime-ridden Cody family is coming back for a fifth season and that it will return to film many scenes in Oceanside. The Cody family name checks Oceanside as their hometown throughout Animal Kingdom episodes.
Shawn Ambrose says he is lucky that his Real Surf surf shop on Coast Highway was involved in the first three seasons of Animal Kingdom. Real Surf was the setting for the surf shop owned by Adrian, played by Spencer Trent Clark. Adrian was the love interest of Deran, the gay Cody.
While Animal Kingdom did not return to Real Surf for season four (he says he hopes they’ll return in season five) Ambrose says fans of the show keep popping up at this shop. “As new people keep binge watching Animal Kingdom on Netflix, they keep discovering Real Surf. My place and the Flying Pig was one of the few business interiors they used. People still come in to get T-shirts even though we weren’t on it last season.”
(While Animal Kingdom continues to showcase the exterior of the building on Tremont Street and Wisconsin Avenue as Deran’s bar, the interior is actually shot at a studio in L.A....Smurf's "Oceanside" house is actually in Long Beach.)
“They were very cool to me," says Ambrose. "They paid me to close for a day. They were very nice to every neighbor they dealt with. They paid very well to have me make a board that was hallowed out to transport cocaine. They even gave it back to me after they shot the scene.”
Ambrose says he remains close to the crew. “I knew they were going to kill Smurf, but I couldn’t tell anybody.” Smurf, the Cody clan matriarch played by Ellen Barkin, was killed off at the end of season four.
Ambrose says the series keeps increasing in viewership every year. “They got like 18 million this year. I remember the first season when they approached me about adapting it from this Australian movie. The city wasn’t real sure it wanted to be connected with a series that had such dark themes. But I think they realized that the city looked beautiful – the Strand, the pier, the harbor – no matter how dark the content was.”
Mayor Peter Weiss says having Animal Kingdom filmed partly in Oceanside is simply good business. “Every time their production comes down here, they pay for all the extra police and city staff that is needed.” Weiss says that crew then stays in hotels and eats at local restaurants. “And when they are finished filming, I know some of the crew comes back down here and stays here with their families.”
Weiss says he is not personally a fan of the show known for crime, drugs and murder. “But I don’t think it shines a bad light on our city at all. Look at all the other cities like New York or L.A. or Chicago who have TV series built around them. I don’t think it tarnishes them or us at all. And I know people who see the show, come here to visit the places they saw on Animal Kingdom.”
“That’s absolutely true,” says Larry’s Beach Club bartender Carole Bullington-Griffin. “A family just came in her from Ohio because they saw us in one of the old episodes. It shows how beautiful Oceanside is. And yes, there are drugs in Oceanside. But I don’t think anybody who lives in Oceanside is going to see Animal Kingdom and say ‘that is who we are.’ It’s just a TV show that happens to be set in Oceanside.”
Many of Bullington-Griffin’s clients who watch Animal Kingdom agree that the drug story lines do not taint Oceanside as a drug mecca. But one universal concern on a recent Wednesday at Larry's: For the good of the show, Animal Kingdom should not have killed off Smurf.
Tom Voris is a teacher at El Camino High. He is sort of in the middle about how Animal Kingdom depicts Oceanside. “Oceanside is a beautiful beach town with a certain urban element to it. It some ways I guess it is honest, even though much of Oceanside is getting cleaned up. But my concern is that the show isn’t as good as it was when it started out. The last season just wasn’t as good as the one's before.”
Stu Segall Productions has been making film and TV productions locally since 1991. It was known for crime drama series as Silk Stockings (1991-99) and Renegade (1992-97). Segal says his Kearny Mesa studios turned out over a thousand action-packed TV episodes through 2004. “I don't do TV any more. After 9/11, TV backed off of violent TV. They turned away from shoot-em-ups and towards reality-based shows which is not what I do. I was stuck with ten stages and no shows.” Segall says he reinvented his business model and now produces film for the U.S. government for military and medical training.
Segall says he absolutely can see a future for Oceanside as an alternate venue for Hollywood studios. “You can do everything in San Diego. Within in hour you can go to the mountains or the desert. I can make San Diego look like Chicago or Florida. San Diego is a great place to shoot.”
And Hollywood seems to like San Diego. Or at least Oceanside. Warner Bros. which produces Animal Kingdom, helped underwrite a free evening concert at South Oceanside Elementary School on September 14.