If you want to get an audience’s attention, you can do a lot worse than beginning with an extreme close-up on Richard E. Grant’s impossibly communicative face. With his bright blue eyes beaming against a burnt orange background, locked directly into camera – and thus, staring directly into your soul, the shot holds too still for just a few moments too long while Grant subtly shifts and seems to breathe you in through the screen. It’s an instant shortcut to unnerving the viewer and introduces them to the intimate, curious, and decidedly offbeat world of Dispatches from Elsewhere.
The new AMC anthology series comes from creator Jason Segel, best known for playing affable everyguys in favorites like Freaks and Geeks, How I Met Your Mother, and his relentlessly charming feature screenwriting debut Forgetting Sarah Marshall. With Dispatches from Elsewhere, in which he also stars in addition to writing and directing the pilot, Segel channels that persona into a new mold; the disaffected everyman, a schmoe trudging aimlessly to and from a nondescript day job to his nondescript apartment in a tragic little life cycle. That’s when he notices strange flyers advertising “human forcefield” experiments and a “human-dolphin communication study” and decides to take a chance on something new, an adventure that leads him to the mysterious Jejune Institute, the Elsewhere Society, and a trio of new companions that help him see magic in the world again.
Inspired by the documentary The Institute, which was itself inspired by Oakland artist Jeff Hull’s sprawling Alternate Reality Game, The Jejune Institute, which “inducted” more than 7,000 players over the course of three years in an existential adventure that blurred the lines between gameplay and cult-like devotion. Taking a cue from the already bonkers real-life story and throwing in a heady dose of magical realism, Dispatches from Elsewhere sees Segel’s Peter stumble into a life-changing mystery adventure alongside Simone (Eve Lindley); a young woman wracked by chronic anxiety; Janice (Sally Field), a long-happily married woman confronting the reality of re-forming a solo identity when her husband falls ill; and Fredwynn (André Benjamin), a bonafide genius whose analytical advantages have also kept him isolated from the world around him. Grant plays Octavio, the face of the Jejune Institute, who they quickly learn is at odds with another mysterious organization known as the Elsewhere Society.
As you’d expect from that lineup, the ensemble is a knockout. Segel and Lindley have tremendous chemistry, which brings a crackling sense of fun to their dynamic as the two feel out their unexpected but not unpleasant bond, and the screen particularly comes alight anytime Grant brings his mischievous energy to the scene. Driven together by the antics of the mysterious warring organizations and randomly teamed up via color-coded paddleboards, our quadrant of characters are sent on a mission to find “Clara” with the help of a talking fish toy, a city full of surreal wonders, and most importantly, each other.
If that sounds a bit whimsical verging on the side of twee, well, Dispatches from Elsewhere can be too. In an age where we’ve all been hardened by the 24/7 news cycle and desensitized by the never-ending internet horror show, when viral culture rewards the pithy over the profound, and algorithmic optimization slowly strips away the odd little human flourish in favor of straightforward efficiency, Dispatches from Elsewhere makes a bold swing by being so dang soft. In the four episodes presented to the press (out of the ten-episode run), each new installment takes us inside the experience and inner-battles of each character, beginning with Peter, then Simone, Janice, and finally Fredwynn. “Think of him as you,” Grant’s narration commands at the top of each episode. Imagine Fredwynn is you. And Simone, and Janice, and Peter. Dispatches from Elsewhere’s very construct, seemingly its entire mission statement, is fuelled by an engine of empathy.
That mutual offering of understanding is at the core of the series and functions like a buoyant little life raft every time Dispatches from Elsewhere gets weighed down by too-familiar archetypes or familiar story beats. While it’s lovely to see an ensemble that includes leading roles for a transwoman, a personal of color, and an actress over the age of 40, their introductions often feel carved in well-worn stone. Simone has distinct symptoms of Manic Pixie Dream Girl syndrome, Janice’s big character intro is pretty much lifted from Up, and for all Segel’s charms, Peter checks all the boxes for the requisite sad-sack in need of a mid-life coming-of-age moment. But that’s only where these characters begin and something I’m reluctant to judge too harshly having only seen four episodes. Because shaking off those constructs could very well be intentional to the design of the show. And, always, when a beat feels too familiar, there’s that constant core of hopeful connection to lift you right back up and keep you on board.
It’s all there in those uncomfortably long opening moments of eye contact. Dispatches from Elsewhere wants to get intimate. Using the whacky mystery of whatever the heck is going on with the Jejune Institute and pairing it with breathless whimsy (Amelie gets a well-earned name drop), Segel’s series sends four strangers on a quest to find their way back to honest feelings and disarming emotion. And it asks the audience to go with them, using every tool at its disposal to fuel that empathy engine. Split screens, animated segments, VR recreations, heck, even a trip into a mind palace; Dispatches from Elsewhere embraces playfulness to transport you into the experience of four lonely people striving for connection. It’s an honest-to-god good vibes situation, across the board. In its first four episodes, the road may feel familiar and it may be a bit slow to get where it’s going, but it’s a lovely stroll all the same.