It’s become a cliché to ask about a TV drama, “What are the stakes?” Often the question embodies an assumption: that a story can’t be worth your time unless it’s explosive and dire. Who gets killed? What’s everybody fighting over? How big are the dragons?
“Lodge 49,” an affable, idiosyncratic comic drama starting Monday on AMC, is by this standard low-stakes, and blissfully so.
This is not to say there’s nothing of interest in it. It involves, for starters: alchemy, a mummy, financial subterfuge, Paracelsus, economic decline, surfing and more than the usual amount of Latin.
But the show starts from the understanding that “stakes” don’t need to be pointy to matter. You care about a drama because you care about the people in it. And “Lodge 49,” about the collection of beautiful losers in a threadbare fraternal society in Long Beach, Calif., is bursting with reasons to care.
We gain entrée through Sean Dudley (Wyatt Russell). Dud, a cheerfully spacey surfer and underemployed pool cleaner, stumbles across the Ancient and Benevolent Order of the Lynx when his wheezy Volkswagen Thing (basically, Dud in automotive form) breaks down outside its local chapter.
The Lynx lodge has a history steeped in grandeur, but it’s now mainly a sometime rental hall and watering hole for an ensemble of castoffs. Among them are Ernie (Brent Jennings), a plumbing-supply salesman hoping for one last shot to make his mark; Connie (Linda Emond), Ernie’s sometime lover and a veteran local reporter whose newspaper is “pivoting to video”; and Blaise (David Pasquesi), an eccentric polymath who runs a marijuana dispensary.
The vibe of the Lynx — a derelict arrayed in the finery of past glories — echoes its setting, a onetime booming hub of the aerospace industry whose biggest employer is going bust. The characters still harbor ambitions and schemes, but they live in the land of Used to Be.
Everyone here has an unhappy story. Dud has a few. He gave up surfing when he nearly dyed from a snake bite, after which his father, a ne’er-do-well whom Dud still holds in childlike awe, disappeared at sea in what only Dud believes was an accident.
Dud, a sweet-sad little Lebowski, is the central character, but the ensemble quickly grows more interesting, particularly his sister, Liz (a terrific, sardonic Sonya Cassidy). Saddled with the debt from their father’s failed business, she waits tables at Shamroxx, a Hooters-esque chain billed as “America’s third or fourth most popular restaurant,” and resists the move to a management track that she’s amply qualified for but would make her job into her life.
Liz would rather not be burdened with her father’s mistakes and her brother’s irresponsibility. But her relationship with Dud isn’t acrimonious. “Lodge 49” is refreshingly acrimony-free. People wrestle with lives gone sideways; sometimes they even come to blows. But its spirit is good-hearted and empathetic: Everyone, even the biggest jerk you encounter, has got their stuff to deal with.
The series title has a more than a coincidental resemblance to Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49.” The creator, Jim Gavin, is a short-story writer and Pynchon fan, and “Lodge 49” channels that author’s taste for arcana and the picaresque offbeat in a more accessible form. (Mr. Gavin is new to TV; Peter Ocko serves as showrunner, and the executive producers include Paul Giamatti, who also provides a voice cameo.) The rundown surf-city milieu also brings to mind a more intelligible version of HBO’s quixotic “John From Cincinnati.”
Is there a plot in all this? Sure. Eventually. But the shaggy tale — which involves corporate skulduggery, the Lynx home office in London and possibly the secret of transmuting base metals to gold — isn’t the first or third biggest reason to soak up this show’s rays.
The real draws are the atmosphere (enhanced by a shimmering soundtrack of surf-rock obscurities and faux-retro contemporary tracks), the deadpan humor and the chemistry among an ace cast. Falling into “Lodge 49” is like hanging out at an oddball dive bar that you ignored the instinct to keep walking past.
This joint may not be for you; you’ll know it quickly if so, and Godspeed. It may be too quirky and precious — there is a dirtbag Wes Anderson feel to some scenes — and you could argue that the 10-episode season is really the stuff of a 90-minute indie film.
But it’s charming stuff, creating a world just this side of reality. There is a strain of magic realism that emerges in “Lodge 49,” but just the barest amount, like a smudge of gold dust. The real magic is how its characters see grandeur in the mundane, like the Shamroxx employees holding medieval jousts atop shopping carts in the restaurant parking lot.
As Ernie (played with martini dryness by Mr. Jennings) puts it, in one of the season’s many moments of mildly intoxicated philosophy, the problem with most people is that they “always go looking for unicorns when we’ve got rhinos. A rhinoceros is a fascinating animal. All this fascinating stuff right here in front of us. Screw unicorns, man.”
Yeah, screw ’em. I’ll take this rhino any day.