'Dispatches From Elsewhere': TV Review | Berlin 2020

Truth proves more interesting than fiction in this doc-turned-drama.
3/1/2020

Jason Segel returns to television in AMC's latest drama, which focuses on a mysterious game that brings together four strangers.

From its very first moments, when a silent Richard E. Grant stares intently into the camera, waiting for the audience's undivided attention, his patience as placid as the burnt orange backdrop behind him, the new drama Dispatches From Elsewhere screams: This is different.

Eager to dispense with narrative protocol "which dictates that the the filmmaker spend an unnecessary amount of time to introduce you to our protagonist, his occupation, the particularities of his life and most importantly, the obstacles that stand in the way of his happiness," Grant's narrator offers the "gift" of "skipping this convention." It won't be the last time Dispatches From Elsewhere mistakes self-consciousness for cleverness.

Created by Jason Segel as something of a comeback vehicle, the AMC series stars the erstwhile romantic lead as Peter, the kind of joyless, habit-prone office drone that Hollywood regularly portrays as a pitiable everyman instead of the slightly sad but altogether enviable beneficiary of stability and success that most people would see him as. Peter soon sees a flyer seeking recruits for a human-to-dolphin communication device and another for volunteers for a "human force field experiment," but the one he responds to is, naturally, more humdrum: a "have you seen this man" ad, posted by the wanted person on the leaflet.

Several twists and turns later, Peter finds himself on a team with Simone (Eve Lindley), a cynical young trans woman and museum docent; Fredwynn (Andre Benjamin), a self-serious genius with a conspiratorial bent; and Janice (Sally Field), a cheerful retiree with more life experience than the other three put together.

But a team for what? That's the central mystery of Dispatches From Elsewhere, or at least of its first four installments. The series is based on Spencer McCall's 2013 documentary The Institute, about an "alternate reality game" that, between 2008 and 2011, sent more than 10,000 players who weren't exactly sure what they were getting into on a high-concept scavenger hunt all over San Francisco. (Organized by Oakland-based artist Jeff Hull, the game, which evokes self-help speak and midcentury pseudoscientific imagery, seems much more like a Bay Area phenomenon than a Philadelphia one, rendering the show's East Coast setting a counterintuitive choice.)

Simone and Janice, both lonely, are happy to have a days-long, city-rediscovering puzzle to play, especially one that takes them on a quest through parades and protests, rooftops and shareholders' meetings. Peter is just relieved to feel something for once. But Fredwynn insists that the game is nothing but a distraction from something bigger and more insidious.

The episodes for review highlight the emotional rewards that the game provides for the four players — a narrative focus undermined by the stock characterization of the core cast. It's also hard not to notice that the weakest performance is the one delivered by Segel, whose strengths hew to his eagerness, which often veers compellingly between puppy-like to guard-dog intense — and which he has little reason to showcase here, at least thus far. In contrast, Field demonstrates her dazzling versatility, while newcomer Lindley brings the bursts of lightness and vivacity that are in too short supply in this gray, stately production. But it's Grant whom we want more of as the always mercurial, never trustworthy likely game-master Octavio Coleman, Esq. (God help anyone who forgets his title.)

With its whimsical 1950s sci-fi flourishes and unpredictable scenery changes, Dispatches From Elsewhere hopes to immerse viewers in the same sense of wonder and possibility that the game offers its characters. Even with its initial centering on airless, ersatz Peter, the pilot manages to arouse fierce curiosity about where the show could go and what it could do next. That energy gradually dissipates, though, as the stakes become increasingly muddled and the narrator continues to explicitly point out — for reasons I assume will become clearer — the characters' archetypal natures.

Dispatches From Elsewhere might become the next step in experimental TV. For now, it's like watching a quartet of mostly cardboard cutouts figuring their way out of the world's fanciest escape room.

Cast: Jason Segel, Richard E. Grant, Sally Field, Andre Benjamin, Eve Lindley
Creators: Jason Segel
Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (AMC)