WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
Four strangers, each feeling that something is missing in their lives, are drawn together by a mysterious organisation known as the Jejune Institute after following a series of mysterious – and not so mysterious – clues spread throughout San Francisco. What is this mysterious institute, though, and what is their part to play once the equally mysterious Elsewhere Society enters the picture, warning the four that there is more going on than meets the eye?
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Like so many genuinely interesting works of art, Dispatches From Elsewhere will enrage and delight in equal measure. And that's just for the people who like it. It may just be the most Marmite TV series to come along since Twin Peaks returned to our screens for a third season with a totally unrestrained David Lynch at the helm. And that's really, really saying something.
Shockingly, quite unlike Lynch's surreal, groundbreaking masterpiece (guess which side I fall on in that particular debate), Jason Segel's very personal and highly inventive new TV show is actually based on a true story. There has already been a documentary covering the Jejune Institute called, quite simply, The Institute, and Segel himself has spoken quite openly about the real-world events that inspired Dispatches From Elsewhere. His interview with Stephen Colbert is especially enlightening.
Despite its real-world roots, though, this 10-episode limited series (or start of an anthology series, depending on whether AMC gives it another series order) is mysterious, constantly surprising and ingeniously inventive. It's also very funny at times and is both genuinely heartbreaking and heartfelt in equal measure. Most of all, though, it's a story about finding the magical in the mundane and in finding what is special about ourselves in other people. In the hellscape of 2020, it can hardly be more timely.
I should also mention that though the show far transcends its real-world roots (even when it embraces them fully), it's probably not a bad idea to come into the show blind. Do not look up the Jejune Institute. Do not read other reviews that lay out exactly what this mysterious entity actually is. And certainly only watch that Colbert interview after finishing all 10 episodes – but please, do watch it. There is something to be said for feeling as lost as the main characters themselves.
If, however, you've seen the documentary or even remember the events that took place in San Francisco at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the show will be barely diminished for you at all. The Jejune Institute is the catalyst for this story; it is not the story itself. Though, again, and I cannot stress this enough, this is only if you're willing to go with the show. The many things that make Dispatches from Elsewhere great will fall on very deaf and quickly agitated ears if the show just isn't for you.
And there really is good reason why it won't be for everyone. Just like there is good reason why, even if you really love the show (as I mostly do), there will still be things that won't work for you. There is, after all, a thin line between self-indulgent and highly personal; between precious and big-hearted; between ambitious and pretentious. Chances are that you won't feel one way or another, but that you'll fluctuate between extremes.
It's a Rorschach test but not in what you feel the show is about (that's pretty clear by the end), but what you take from it. I, for example, found its ultimate message to be incredibly noble and welcome but still found the final five minutes of the last episode to be (no spoilers) cloying and overly earnest. That final episode, in general, will either be seen as the brilliantly audacious subversion that wraps a neat bow on the show thematically, if not narratively, or a masturbatory cop-out that betrays everything that the show was building towards. I lean 99% towards the former, but I can totally see why others would lean towards the latter. Even showrunner, Mark Friedman, admitted as much when replying to comments on the finale on a popular pop-culture website.
It's also undoubtedly true that like so many other movies or TV shows that fully embrace their tonal inconsistency, the fact that Dispatches From Elsewhere is, at once, a romance, an existential drama, an absurdist comedy, a conspiracy thriller, a mystery, a tragedy, and a character piece, means that it sometimes loses the fight between different parts of itself. The comedic, mysterious and magical sides to it point towards a show that should be fairly plot-driven and pacey, whereas the more dramatic and existential elements demand a slower, more introspective, and decidedly less jolly affair. Part of the show's charm is that it is such a mess – but that doesn't mean it can't be frustrating for the same reason.
For all of my apprehensions, though, as long as you enjoy adventurous television, I highly recommend checking out Dispatches From Elsewhere and seeing what it, and they, hold in store for you.
The sheer bravado of making something this genre-bending is itself enough to make the whole thing worth 10 hours of your life and, frankly, the world needs more unabashedly creative, and sometimes challenging, TV.
There's the brilliant way in which Segel and co are able to take a reasonably well-known real-world phenomenon and make it something surprising, subversive and almost literally magical. Dispatches From Elsewhere is all about the lines between realism and surrealism; the supernatural and the super natural; and between fiction and our personal narratives. Structurally, it's also a (messy) triumph that reveals itself to be an onion - each new layer unveiled with each passing episode.
As is true of any good serialised piece of storytelling, though, it's the characters and the actors portraying them that are the deciding factors in whether the show works. Fortunately, there is absolutely no ambivalence here on that score. These are beautifully drawn, beautifully portrayed characters that, like the show itself, surprise, infuriate and delight in equal measure. When they do infuriate, though, it's only in the way that your average flesh-and-blood human being won't do.
Take Jason Segel's character, Peter. When we meet him, he is the most passive and most broken soul on the planet. He drags himself to work as a data capturer for a huge music streaming service where he literally fails to hear the music around him. His only musical reference point is an old copy of the Les Misérables CD that he was once given as a gift. And yet, for all that you want to shake him out of his stupor and for all that you may know where his character arc is generally heading, what's great about his character is that even at his worst, he is a sweet, sensitive guy just waiting in vain for the world to match his benevolence. This is Segel as we've never seen him before and it is pretty easily his greatest acting performance so far.
This isn't just Peter's story, though. There's also Simone, a trans woman played by the series' breakout star, Eve Lindley, who forms a powerfully romantic bond with Peter (that she's trans is taken entirely for granted) but has plenty of her own crap to work through – not least some mega trust issues that make it hard for her to connect with even those who accept her for what she is.
She has Janice (Sally Fields, as brilliant as ever) as a confidante. Janice, though, as the oldest member of our four heroes by far, has her own demons to confront as a lifetime dedicated to a single man has her questioning the sacrifices she made to achieve a perfect relationship. Joining this mysterious "game" as a lark, she finds something that she least expected: not just a confrontation with her younger self but a surprising friendship with Fredwynn, the eccentric, asocial genius convinced that there is a conspiracy afoot and the Jejune Institute is at the heart of it.
It has to be said. Aside, perhaps, from the wonderfully eccentric Richard E Grant as the mysterious head of the Jejune Institute and our (un?)reliable narrator, Fredwynn is my favourite thing about the show and the most enjoyable character out of the main characters. André Benjamin quickly makes you forget that he was the "pop" side of hip-hop duo, Outkast, as André 3000 (Hey Ya, anyone?) as he takes on a character that should just be another Sheldon Cooper or, at best, an Abed Nadir but he's so much more than that. Frankly, by the end of the series, I wasn't thinking of a second season of Dispatches from Elsewhere as much as a spin-off show, featuring the further hijinks of Fredwynn and Janice. This is hardly Benjamin's first acting job, but it is the one that can easily make him one of the very best musician-turned-actors out there.
Honestly, Fredwynn has such a funny and surprisingly warm presence in the series, that I'm tempted to recommend the show just for him; misgivings be damned. I won't, though, because Dispatches from Elsewhere simply won't be for everyone and not even a killer cast will change that. Do give it a try, though. You might find something truly special, even, dare I say it, magical. I don't know how you feel but magical, in my view, is exactly what the doctor ordered in these decidedly unmagical times.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: