It has to be said: The dude ... abrades.
It's not the actor's fault if the main character of Lodge 49, the new AMC series premiering Monday night after Better Call Saul, grates on viewers' nerves. He's written that way: Sean "Dud" Dudley (Wyatt Russell) is a dim but genial beach bum strongly reminiscent of Jeff Bridges' "The Dude" character from the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski. He's a man of modest ambitions and even more modest accomplishments, determined to not get hung up on the whole money thing and just ... coast through life. When we meet him, however, he's run aground.
His father's dead, and the pool supply store they ran together has gone under. He's living, if you can call it that, in his car, when he's not sleeping on the couch of his sister Liz (an excellent Sonya Cassidy), who is herself drowning in the debt incurred by their father. An injury prevents him from surfing, once his passion. He's lost, and not particularly interested in being found. Yet he maintains a blissed-out affect, certain that things will work out.
Making such a passive, indolent character the focus of a series is risky, of course. Drama needs conflict, and Dud is conflict's absence. Such inertia, in a main character, usually creates a frustrating and unsatisfying sense of randomness — of events simply unfolding, instead of choices getting made. Yet Lodge 49 creator Jim Gavin and his writing team allow for this by filling the periphery of the series with whispers, signs and portents. Something is going on in Dud's life — fate, or perhaps something much more earthly, is guiding him, and his blithe willingness to follow it will either be his salvation or his doom.
That duality is what Lodge 49 is all about, and it's best represented in the not-so-secret society Dud stumbles upon. It's a membership organization that exists on two levels at once — the mysterious and the mundane. Members whisper of alchemy, magical scrolls and forbidden, ancient secrets even as they host bingo nights, Scout breakfasts, and play pinball. The series keeps introducing elements of the uncanny, only to immediately undercut the magic with a bracing dose of reality. It's a steady source of humor, yes — but it also keeps the story on a razor's edge, and the world around its character's intriguingly malleable.
That world, as it manifests in the series' setting — the bleached-out, sun-blasted strip malls and grubby apartment complexes of Long Beach, Calif. — is a vividly captured place of loss. A major aircraft manufacturer has been pulling out of the community for years, hemorrhaging thousands of jobs — many of the series' most memorable scenes take place in the company's vast, empty cubicle farms and sepulchral warehouses — and Lodge 49 takes care to show us how that seismic shift leaches into each of its characters' stories.
As Dud throws himself into the lives of his fellow lodge members, we — slowly, steadily — learn how their experiences intersect, and grow to understand that they are each, in different ways, grieving something they've lost. Ernie (Brent Jennings), a perpetually exasperated plumbing supplies salesman, yearns for a likely too-good-to-be true big sale. Connie (a soulful Linda Emond), wants to recapture some sense of the hopefulness her younger self enjoyed. Blaise (David Pasquesi) aches for the lodge's mystical lore to be something other than pure hokum — and he may be in luck.
And in one of the series smartest choices, Dud's sister Liz attempts to lift herself out of a dead-end job, only to discover that the life of a high-powered corporate executive, with its buzzwords and collective, ritualistic mindset, is just another secret society.
You may find yourself growing as frustrated with Lodge 49's leisurely pace as Dud's friends grow with his stubborn, unflappable optimism. The series is full of odd details, meandering subplots, ancillary characters and seeming asides that can make a given episode seem quirky for quirky's sake. But gradually, over the course of this ten-episode season, the show reveals a solid, if densely constructed, narrative infrastructure. Plots intersect, characters deepen and a few bits of genius casting make the winding journey a hugely satisfying one.
By its tenth episode, Lodge 49 becomes a series about our need to believe in that underlying infrastructure — to feel that, beneath the reality we know, the daily existence we all, in the words of one character "just keep grinding out," there is mystery, fate, purpose, magic. In its oddly gentle, gently odd and entirely distinct way, Lodge 49 makes as good an argument for the existence of a kind of shabby everyday magic as you'll find anywhere.