Wasting no time, the new AMC anthology series Dispatches from Elsewhere introduces viewers to the first of its four protagonists on the fateful day in which everything changes. Peter (Jason Segel), an ordinary-presenting man living in Philadelphia (who viewers learn has been devoid of strong emotions of any type for many years) notices a set of mysterious flyers stuck to telephone poles that line his daily route to and from work.
Out of curiosity, he calls the number on the flyers and is summoned to the Jejune Society, where he goes to briefly interrupt the mundanity that is his daily life. There, he learns that under the direction of founder Octavio Coleman Esquire (Richard E. Grant, who acts as an all-knowing narrator through the series), the Jenjune Society designs products that “fill the void” — or, presumably, help individuals cope with the occasional bout of hopelessness.
During his visit, Peter is informed that because he called the number on the flyers, he’s qualified as “one of the special ones” and his participation is requested in the organization’s search for “something greater.”
As has now probably become clear to viewers of Dispatches from Elsewhere (and to the reader of this review), the series is intentionally vague. Immediately after being recruited by the Jejune Society, Peter is recruited by its rival, the Elsewhere Society. After his trust in the Jenjune Society is undermined by the urgent messages he receives from the Elsewhere Society, Peter chooses the latter.
Through the Elsewhere Society’s initiation process, Peter is united with Simone (Eve Lindley), an art museum docent struggling with what appears to be social anxiety; Janice (Sally Field), whose life partner was recently rendered unresponsive by a stroke; and Fredwynn (André Benjamin), a genius with an affinity for conspiracies.
The team of four is tasked with finding a girl named Clara who possesses “divine nonchalance” — yet another turn of phrase we aren’t supposed to truly understand the meaning of. They embark on a scavenger hunt to find her, following clues left by the Elsewhere Society that take them in and around Fishtown, a neighborhood in Philadelphia. (In the four episodes I’ve seen, the viewer is not informed who Clara is, or how she went missing.)
At one point, Simone remarks that “this whole thing” — aka, the journey she, Peter, Janice, and Fredwynn have been pulled into — “floats in and out of levels of bizarritude, most of which I dig, but there’s an undercurrent of creepy that I can’t quite put my finger on.”
A creepy undercurrent pervades each episode with increasing fervor, in the form of existential awareness.
I’m in the same camp as Simone. Watching Peter, Simone, Janice, and Fredwynn solve the mysteries set up in Dispatches from Elsewhere is intriguing. Cliffhangers, clues, and (at times) nonsensical and unexpected narrative twists and turns keep viewers on the edge of their seats.
As the series unfolds, it feels a bit like you’re reading a classic novel, chock-full of themes and motifs pertaining to how each character approaches the mission to find Clara based on their own lives and worldview in some way — Fredwynn, for example, devotes himself to uncovering clues that lead to the truth behind the mission because he believes it’s all part of a government conspiracy —and the significance their journey has for them personally. Peter feels an unfamiliar, wonderful sense of belonging. Simone is forced out of her anxiety-filled interiority. Janice learns how to live a life independent of her husband.
However, the “creepy undercurrent,” to use Simone’s phrasing, that pervades each episode with increasing fervor takes the form of existential awareness. Coleman Esq. spends a lot of time detailing the meaning of life to Peter, Fredwynn, Janice, and Simone, and to the audience through a series of direct-to-camera monologues. It’s unsettling to watch the all-powerful narrator expose each of the four protagonist’s deepest insecurities and weaknesses and undermine the priorities, values, and identity in which each character has taken great comfort.
Having so many meta-truths (or, at least meta-statements) thrust at me was overwhelming, and I found myself longing to get back to the story at hand rather than being pseudo-pulled into the show’s universe myself. But I highly suspect that my reaction is within the realm of what creators Segel and Mark Friedman were going for — Dispatches from Elsewhere affected me and has absolutely stuck with me.
Dispatches from Elsewhere is emotionally intelligent, but in a dark, manipulative fashion. The baggage that Peter, Janice, and Simone in particular have amassed through their individual lived experiences is used against them and also in the rivalry between the Jejune and Elsewhere Societies. After getting to know the three characters so intimately, seeing their wounds tossed around so carelessly made me sad.
On the plus side, Segel, Field, Benjamin, Grant, and Lindley’s performances are remarkable. Field, Lindley, and Segel create sweet, understanding, and deep characters that the viewer truly feels for; Benjamin and Grant are both convincing, non-evil and evil (respectively) geniuses whose conniving antics succeed at raising the stakes sky high.
If you’re looking to be pulled every which way by an ever-evolving and consistently disorienting narrative, Dispatches from Elsewhere is the mind-bending scavenger hunt you’ve been looking for. However, if you’re hoping to be soothed, diverted, and distracted — maybe, from the void itself — you might want to skip the series.
Dispatches from Elsewhere premieres on March 1, 2020 on AMC.
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