On one level, AMC’s “Lodge 49” is a warm, quiet portrait of a lovable Southern California loser. Wyatt Russell’s Sean “Dud” Dudley is a laconic surfer dude in Long Beach whose life has come down to empty longing, debt, and homelessness. He can’t surf anymore, thanks to a limp from a snake bite, and he hasn’t had a job for a year, since his beloved father drowned and the family’s pool-cleaning business tanked. He wants to get his modest old life back, but in the meantime he cruises around in his yellow VW Thing, combs the beaches with a metal detector, barters with a slimy pawn shop owner, and watches bad TV with his twin sister, Liz (Sonya Cassidy), a waitress.
Not that Dud is hard to be around; he has a golden wire of optimism threaded into his circuitry. The bad luck seems to roll off his back, except for some anger about his father’s old house, which leads him to pester the family that bought it in foreclosure. Watching this rudderless guy shuffle around town, in ceaseless, unyielding sunlight, is a bittersweet pleasure. Russell, whose body language speaks of Dud’s passivity and gentleness, is perfect; he brings a natural, lived-in quality to the role of a lost boy who just wants to go home.
On another, deeper level, the show, which premieres Monday at 10 p.m. after the return of “Better Call Saul,” is a touching, and at times darkly comic, exploration of nothing less than the meaning of loss and the meaning of life. Dud is in a state of mourning for his father, of which he is only half aware. He’s still in the denial phase, and he isn’t ready to move forward — because that would be an acknowledgment that he can’t go back. He still sees flashes of his father’s face, standing behind him as he looks into his reflection on a pool surface. It’s a poignant portrayal of the way grief is, to some extent, a form of staying in touch with the lost one. And it’s only more moving to learn that Dud is romanticizing his father, who let Liz cosign a loan that now leaves her $80,000 in debt.
One day, Dud runs out of gas in front of a building he has never seen before, a lodge called the Ancient and Benevolent Order of the Lynx. He goes in, and his spiritual education begins. He connects with plumbing-parts salesman Ernie (Brent Jennings), a weed dispensary owner named Blaise (David Pasquesi), and Connie (Linda Emond), a journalist whose failing newspaper is about to “pivot to video” — all played with distinction by the respective actors. He falls into the culture of the Lynx, and its alchemical mysteries, too, which unfold across the first few episodes. You can see Dud start to shake off his mental haze, as he finds support even while his world has been fractured. It’s not entire clear at first what show creator Jim Gavin wants the lodge to represent — and even whether or not the lodge is a magical place. At times, you sense ghosts closely watching the ensemble, as they drink beer and bemoan the local economy.
Dud and Liz aren’t the only financially strained characters in “Lodge 49,” by the way; they’re just the ones we get to know best. Almost everyone is in serious debt on this charming series, most of all Ernie, and at some point many of them are tempted by theft. When Dud finally gets a temp job, his assignment is putting together termination packages for employees at a waning corporation. There’s a pall over Long Beach and its beautiful, dramatic ocean, even if the sun is still shining.
Starring: Wyatt Russell, Brent Jennings, Sonya Cassidy, David Pasquesi, Linda Emond, Eric Allan Kramer
On: AMC, Monday at 10 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.