Warning: The following contains light spoilers for the series premiere of Dispatches from Elsewhere, which debuts Sunday, March 1 on AMC.
With the rise of gritty TV anti-heroes, followed swiftly by Peak TV’s wild attempts to woo eyeballs, there’s something to be said for making a go at some soft-bellied “Whimsy TV.” It’s a challenging era to try such a thing, though Netflix’s one-shot John Mulaney and The Sack Lunch Bunch is a great example of just how brilliant, and necessary, this bizarre sub-genre can be.
Does it work when it’s stretched out over a whole season though? Well, AMC’s new anthology series, Dispatches from Elsewhere — created by, and starring, Jason Segel — is out to prove that a Joe Versus the Volcano-type fable still has a place in the crowded landscape of today’s entertainment.
Based on a real-life, interactive, transmedia scavenger hunt that operated in San Francisco over a decade ago (and the 2013 documentary about it, The Institute), Dispatches from Elsewhere is a quirky and quaint fictionalized love letter to those who, for myriad reasons, feel isolated and separated from the rest of the world. It’s charming, low-stakes fare that, at best, feels refreshing. But too quickly, the show gets lost inside its own odd-itorium.
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Dispatches is patchwork quilt comprised of a little Truman Show, a touch of Lynch, a smidgen of Coen Brothers, and few more squares borrowed from other dreamscape-y projects of the past. It’s even infused with David Fincher’s The Game, though to be fair the actual game this show is based on utilized elements of that movie.
The show’s medium-sized shortcomings don’t come from its many jumbled inspirations for tone and texture, though. They come from the fact that you’re basically watching characters make meager arcs while joyfully fumbling through an Escape Room. It’s so calm, at times, that the show barely registers as a whisper. So with Dispatches, we may have discovered that too much fancifulness and abstract longing can gray everything out rather than actually add color.
In one of the many meta aspects of the series, Richard E. Grant’s ubiquitous and eloquent game master, Octavio Coleman, esq., serves as the story’s narrator, introducing us to the main players (in the premiere’s case, Segel’s socially paralyzed Peter). He acknowledges that we’re watching a TV show and then allows us to skip over exposition in favor of a quick rundown of Peter’s drab, drone-ish lifestyle.
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We meet the show’s other main characters throughout — mostly Eve Lindley’s luminous trans woman, Simone, who Peter becomes enraptured with — but this is Peter’s spotlight. Other characters, like Simone, Andre Benjamin’s humorless Fredwyn, and Sally Field’s maternal Janice, will get their spotlights in the following weeks.
Peter finds himself drawn into a world that buzzes and hums with circular chatter and kitschy throwback sci-fi. He must navigate through fields of fake, clandestine organizations — all helmed by Coleman doing different voices and accents — that are, for some reason or another, pitted against each other. All in the name of finding a missing girl named Clara who contains “Divine Nonchalance.” None of these elements matter, really, as it’s all just a way to bring Peter up and out of his anxiety-stricken shell. The fictional world-behind-the-world (which Fredwyn thinks is real) is designed to bring people from different walks of life together in order to “highlight the one-ness” of us all. Ultimately, it’s a sweet notion that makes for a medium watch.
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