AMC’s Jason Segel-created Dispatches from Elsewhere opens on the face of Richard E. Grant, sitting with a faded orange background behind him. Grant, playing Octavio, the leader of the Jejune Institute, sets the scene by actually not saying anything. He just sits there, stoic and persistent. Finally, the series begins with, “And now that I have your attention, let’s begin.”
Though you learn that Octavio might not be the most reliable narrator, Grant’s soft, yet biting voice slips itself into your consciousness to begin the series, focusing on Peter (Segel), for whom the first episode is named after. Octavio says a multitude of “Peter is you…” statements, describing the main character in a way that is relatable and specific. Peter lives a monotonous life, one full of apologies and missed chances, of days that end in the same place they began. The visuals jump from being striking to home-video-esque on a dime, but the overall oddity of the choices feels pointed, as the first episode was directed by Segel himself. For example, you see a group of men in white suits with flame throwers attempting to torch Peter while he’s in a bubble. You see Peter sitting in a blank room watching a dozen TVs, each playing different memories. These images stick with you.
After introducing its title character, Dispatches from Elsewhere takes little time to enter its storyline, starting with Peter going to his therapist and visiting the Jejune Institute. He follows a set of directions, escorting him until he watches an introduction video with Octavio at the center. The Jejune CEO/President/Founder (one or all of those titles) tells Peter he “has something unique, vital, and essential” and that the “day is now to rescue [him] from the mundane. You don’t belong here. You belong with the special ones.” It’s the first instance of the series hurtling toward existential grounds, hoping to live in a plane of fascination and emotional interest. After crying at the video, Peter finds an induction card that tells him not to fill out the induction card, causing him to follow another set of instructions ending at a pawn-type show called “Elsewhere”. He meets his partner in this game and a scene-stealer in Simone, played by Eve Lindley who becomes a bigger star by the minute.
In many ways, Simone represents the opposite of Peter: someone who loves music, enjoys the unknown, and attempts to live in the moment. The two lonely hearts work together for the rest of the episode, dancing with Bigfoot, sharing Airpods, and feeling a bit of magic, a central theme and hope through two episodes of the series. They aren’t alone in this puzzle, though, as they meet up with a gaggle of others who have been plucked for these tasks. Peter and Simone end episode one rounding out their group, with the intense Fredwynn (André “3000” Benjamin) and Janice (Sally Field). Their goal sounds simple: find Clara, the bringer of divine nonchalance.
Named after Simone, episode two follows the trans actress to a pride parade, freezing her in time as Octavio gives us another series of “Simone is you…” statements. She lacks confidence and feels a near-constant state of loneliness, depicted while she chats with the woman inside of a painting at her art museum docent job.
Once she gets a clue to get back into the game, she visits Peter at his work on his birthday, and they set off into the world. Learning a bit more about each other, including that the only CD Peter owns is the Les Misérables London Cast Soundtrack, the partners head to Fishtown, Clara’s hometown. Again, they look for magic in this small town, hopping from business to business, picking up 3D glasses and going into a secret room, the Elsewhere HQ, at the local tavern. Throughout, Simone gets reminders of her inadequacies through jukeboxes and bus announcements. Oh, and there are several Amelie references which are sure to satisfy many film fans.
After watching an animated video describing the Elsewhere Society as good versus the Jejune Institute as awful with some help from Peter riding a stationary bike, Simone and Peter climb to a rooftop and experience a moment of intensity. Clara, through a trinket’s fish mouth, tells them to say the things they’ve been holding inside. Peter obliges, describing the music he hears when he spends time with Simone. It’s another reminder that Segel possesses serious acting chops with the right script and the right moment. So far, this character allows the actor to show his full range, existing as the sad sack from Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the existentialist from End of the Tour. After Simone snubs him through pure silence, he admits he’s “ready to be alone now,” something we all feel when situations become one-sided.
The show continues to be interesting regardless of this love story woven throughout, and the sheer absence of explanation keeps the audience guessing and engaged. Segel and his writing team drop hints but have decided against using narration to explain the unexplainable, instead leaving much to the opinion and the mind of its watchers. Simone meets back up with the rest of the group, as Fredwynn and Janice describe their day in detail, one that led them to believe Jejune is the good guy and Elsewhere is the rascal. Attending a protest in front of the Institute, Simone gives a good-enough speech to rope Peter back into the fold, though her honesty in being a mess and being uncomfortable shines in the confines of the show. Fredwynn hops into Octavio’s trunk as he comes out of the building and the group is well on its way toward finding out the bigger scheme.
Phew. The first two looks at Dispatches from Elsewhere show a flawed, yet commendable series trying to find its footing and its meaning in the world. It stays interesting and gives its characters time to breathe and time to digest the flood of emotions happening in each scene. Segel has created a piece of television that attempts to make sense of the world, and for that, we should all be excited.
Dispatches from Elsewhere airs on AMC on Fridays. Episode three is set for March 13.
Michael Frank is a film critic and journalist based in Brooklyn. He thinks the Before trilogy should be in the Louvre and once bumped into John Oliver at brunch. He has bylines in RogerEbert, Film Inquiry, The Playlist, and AwardsWatch. You can find him on Twitter @peachfuzzcritic.