If I wind up sounding a little daffy on the subject of "Lodge 49," a 10-part series beginning Monday on AMC, it is in part that it feels like I have been sent a gift, tailor-made to my sensibilities. An hour-long comedy, rich with dramatic complication and depth of feeling, it is not without crises and conflicts; but it is also not weighed down with murders or monsters. No one here has a superpower — few have any power at all, for that matter, and even then it's mostly the illusion of power. They have opposing interests at times, but there are no real villains, no antiheroes.
The series was created by Jim Gavin, an acclaimed writer of short stories mostly set in Southern California, but "Lodge 49” feels more like a big comic novel. Although it has a very different story to tell, parts of it put me in mind of Mike White's "Enlightenment" and David Milch and Kem Nunn's “John from Cincinnati” in setting and tone, and of a less-mannered "Fargo," minus the moral compromises and brutality.
Wyatt Russell, looking like a young cross between his actor dad, Kurt, and Jeff Bridges in "The Big Lebowski," plays Sean “Dud” Dudley, an aging young man whose life has been derailed by the one-two punch of a debilitating snake bite during a surf trip to Nicaragua and the death of his father, presumed drowned off the coast of Long Beach, not long after Dud's return.
Whether this disappearance was intentional or not is an unresolved sore point between Dud and his sister, Liz (Sonya Cassidy). Dud, for whom their father could do no wrong, believes it accidental. Liz, saddled with debt from a loan she co-signed for him and paying it off with grim responsibility, takes the former view.
While Liz labors with apathetic efficiency in a Hooters-like “breastaurant,” Dud is squatting in his old apartment and staking out the house he grew up in, lost to foreclosure. Blithely incapable of living more than half a day ahead, he gets by on money borrowed from his sister or taken out in usurious loans from a pawn shop in the strip mall where his father's pool maintenance business used to be; he also sweeps the beach for lost change with a metal detector.
One day he turns up a ring in the sand, bearing an emblem he learns is that of the Ancient and Benevolent Order of the Lynx, a kind of junior-grade Masons, with a parallel historical interest in alchemy. By fate or happenstance — in fiction, of course, where coincidence is a tool, they amount to the same thing — Dud runs out of gas in front of the local Lynx lodge, Lodge 49. (The resonance with Thomas Pynchon's novel "The Crying of Lot 49” is not accidental.)
Here he encounters Ernie Fontaine (Brent Jennings), a 59-year-old industrial plumbing salesman and lodge "knight" we have met earlier, shooing crows away from his house with a BB gun. Dud, dreamy and a little dim, insists that they were meant to meet — Russell plays him with the childlike qualities of a silent film comedian — and that he and Ernie are “in cahoots." (Among other things, Dud tells his sister, "We both have a background in residential hydronics.") Ernie insists they are not, and that sometimes a social club is just a social club, though he is emotionally invested becoming its next Sovereign Protector.
This is a satirical small-town comedy, in which the fact that everybody knows a good deal about everybody else's business does not mean they understand one another well, a show about community in which most everyone is hungry for connection even as they are holding someone else at arm's length. Declarations of deep feeling are often left to hang in the air.
There are eccentric characters here — and there are a lot of characters — but with rare exceptions they are not played eccentrically. (Even “Evil Dead” star Bruce Campbell, when he arrives late in the story, gives a relatively measured performance.) Their lives are shaped by myths and legends, from the history of the Lynx to the never-glimpsed developer called only Captain, and “Lodge 49” has the quality of being mystical without mystical things actually happening. (Or do they?)
"Signs and symbols, Ernie," says lodge member Blaise St. John (David Pasqesi), the house philosopher, when Ernie tells him about the crows. Characters are repeatedly seen dreaming, or waking up from dreams — more than a few times hungover in unfamiliar surroundings. (There is a lot of drinking.) There are hallucinations — or are there? — as fleeting as a blinking woman in a still photograph and as hard to ignore as a floor full of stars.
The show never winks at the viewer; it never pushes a point with a tricky camera angle or cute underscoring. There is a kind of calm to much of it, whether we are in the permanent dusk of the lodge's tavern, or the doughnut shop were Dud hangs out, or in the mostly empty offices of a dying aerospace corporation.
Action does erupt every so often, but for the most part “Lodge 49” is a medium-paced story, driven by conversation. It isn’t slow — it’s remarkably busy, in fact — but it’s in no rush to give up its secrets, either. Seemingly random comments and mysterious glimpsed events may not be explained until an episode or two or more later, if ever — there are doors left open at the end of its 10-episode season, possibly to be walked through in a second. But the first feels close enough to complete, and I will likely watch it all again.