Jason Segel gives us an energetic journey with compelling characters to balance a campy premise.
About halfway through the first episode of AMC’s Dispatches From Elsewhere, Simone (Eve Lindley), one of the main characters, exclaims: “I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s freaking fun!” This phrase just about sums up this new show, created by and starring Jason Segel. While Dispatches is scripted entertainment, it’s based on the documentary The Institute, which explores the hybrid alternate reality game and performance art piece by Oakland based artist Jeff Hull.
From 2008 to 2011, Hull “inducted” thousands of people in the San Francisco Bay Area into the Jejune Institute. He created multiple “episodes” for inductees to participate in, giving them missions with instructions as silly as dancing at a phone box to things as grand as leading a parade. Segel moves the action from San Francisco to Philadelphia but retains the ridiculous and almost cult-like nature of its source material in depicting the on-screen Jejune Institute and its rival the Elsewhere Society.
In the first episode, we are introduced to Peter, an average joe working a dull job. Intrigued by flyers with nonsensical adverts for dolphin communication and human forcefield testing, he calls a number and is invited to an office building downtown. He’s soon roped into a world of intrigue just below the surface of our everyday world, where two entities, the corporate Jejune Institute and more radical Elsewhere Society, frantically search for Clara (Cecilia Balagot), a mysterious inventor whose talent promises to liberate humanity from societal shackles.
Soon after his induction, Peter is paired with Simone, a trans docent; Janice (Sally Field), an aging housewife; and Fredwynn (Andre Benjamin), an idiosyncratic genius. Unsure whether this is a game, a hoax, a conspiracy, or even completely real, the group run around Philadelphia trying to find the truth behind Jejune and Elsewhere, as well as the enigmatic Clara.
Dispatches From Elsewhere’s pace is madcap, as characters move from set piece to set piece following the game’s clues. Large chunks of each episode are spent with the protagonists solving puzzles and riddles to learn more about Jejune/Elsewhere. The group moves from location to location, figuring out their next step, and as soon as they solve the puzzle, they’re pushed along by an alarm or group of thugs chasing them to their next objective.
With so much movement, viewers are treated to a variety of locales, with interiors decorated in a pastiche of eras: ’60s chic, Art Deco elegance, the rusty sienna of the ’70s. Exteriors feature picturesque parts of Philly, utilizing the city’s older sections to great appeal. Scenes use split screens to give a spy or heist thriller vibe, and animation gives us a glimpse into the characters’ inner thoughts.
Dispatches From Elsewhere’s pace is madcap, as characters move from set piece to set piece following the game’s clues.
Despite its generally frantic pacing, Dispatches isn’t afraid to slow things down and give its characters room to shine. At the beginning of the first four episodes, Jejune’s leader Octavio (Richard E. Grant) asks us to “imagine yourself” as each one. While the drama between Jejune and Elsewhere keeps things moving, it’s the group’s interactions with each other that make up the heart of the show. This is especially true of the episodes focusing on Simone and Janice. In Peter’s episode, Simone acts as Peter’s “manic pixie dream girl,” even sharing a scene straight out of Garden State, with Simone giving Peter an AirPod to share a song with him.
In the next episode, however, we see that Simone’s happy-go-lucky air is a façade to hide her own insecurities. She’s a trans woman who, despite transitioning, doesn’t feel like she’s living authentically. Her episode opens with her walking to her first Pride parade… and ultimately running away because she feels overwhelmed. By far, Lindley is the breakout star of the show, and it’s refreshing that a non-LGBT centered show features a trans woman as both a main character and a potential love interest. She’s vivacious and energetic, and funny as hell, giving by far the best line of the first four episodes. Upon spying a bodyguard who looks easy to dupe, she purrs: “He looks horny and gullible. Target acquired.”
Field brings a wonderful depth to Janice, a housewife who spent her life building her relationship with her husband, and now finds herself lost and alone when her husband is incapacitated by a stroke. Janice’s episode features by far the most heart-wrenching scene, where she is able to talk to her younger self, and finds that she has to justify her life against the dreams of her youth. Field’s use of body language and facial expressions is reminiscent of her standout monologue at the end of Steel Magnolias and makes her the most compelling actor on screen.
Compared to the two female leads, the male characters are a little one-note. Peter’s main characteristic is that he’s the boring everyman, though Segel also imbues him with a sense of childlike wonder that’s endearing. Fredwynn is eccentric and obsessed with the idea that Jejune/Elsewhere is a conspiracy borne by “big data companies,” but Benjamin makes him likable as he tries to overcome his own personal obsessions to relate better to his partners. Hopefully, both Peter and Fredwynn will be given more depth in future episodes. The show really rests on the performance of the four mains, as there are really no recurring supporting characters to speak of other than Octavio. Grant gives him an otherworldly air that is simultaneously comforting and threatening, with a soothing voice that makes you think of a cult leader who can convince you to do anything.
Dispatches From Elsewhere is a weird show, with a weird premise, but it takes the audience on a great journey if, like its characters, you allow yourself to be swept up in it. It’s full of bizarre, nonsense phrases pulled from its real-life inspiration, such as divine nonchalance, and it often veers into the silly. The showrunners made a great choice to not let the mystery of Jejune/Elsewhere be the primary focus of the show. It’s easy to see how this could fall down the same trap as Lost, where the mysteries don’t give the answers we were promised.
For Dispatches, it doesn’t really matter if Jejune/Elsewhere are real, or performance art, or some grand conspiracy. What matters is the relationships forged by the characters. In a world where so many people seem so isolated, this is a show about people making connections with strangers. All the characters say that this game is something they need, that they haven’t felt alive in so long. It’s a feeling that many can relate to.
Dispatches From Elsewhere is now airing on AMC.