Review by C.J. Bunce
For anyone still in withdrawals and languishing from the news that AMC’s Lodge 49 did not get renewed for a third season, a new show premiering this week may help fill the void. It also hails from AMC, and carries over many of the same themes as that drama/comedy masked as fantasy about a group of people stuck in a similar place in their lives who find that spark of magic to get them back on track. It’s writer/director/star Jason Segel’s Dispatches from Elsewhere—the first two episodes are now available on AMC and at AMC’s website, with new episodes airing each Monday night at 9 p.m. Central.
Depending on your perspective, your tolerance of the unusual, and your openness to new things, like the four lead characters on the screen, you may think the series is about a game, a hoax, a conspiracy, or something very real. Dispatches on Elsewhere is a ten-episode limited series that challenges its characters (and the viewers at home) to examine their own lives. Our on-screen heroes each have their own personal issues–at the core is the average person dealing with the monotony of the daily grind, with the first four episodes spotlighting each member of an unusual assemblage. Not so self-indulgent like dramas with a similar off-center sort of production design and story like Legion or [insert any Charlie Kaufman screenplay here], the show searches out the honesty of lost and lonely souls at work on the street corner or at home, all searching for more meaning from their lives.
Writer/director Jason Segel plays a near extension of his character in How I Met Your Mother named Peter, this time he’s single, living in an apartment in Philadelphia, disengaged from everything, and embarrassed of the boring nature of his data assembly job in the music industry. But he brings to the table a vivid imagination, working out in his head (and brought to the TV screen for viewers) those things he ponders, beginning with his reactions to a string of flyers taped to street posts. On a whim he pursues one of the brochures, calling a number he tears from the bottom. This leads him to the beginning of his journey with this strange Jejune Institute–the exact place for someone who doesn’t think he’s special. He meets a transgendered woman named Simone, played by Eve Lindley, whose endearing enthusiasm is simply stellar, especially in the Simone-focused second episode (consider this series her breakout role). Her imagination finds her carrying out a conversation with a painting of a woman in a museum. She becomes his partner, and the team expands to include a kindly older lady played by Oscar-winning actress Sally Field, and an uptight genius played by André Benjamin.
Those willing to get sucked into the fantasy of the show will meet Oscar-nominated actor Richard E. Grant in the engaging kind of role he does best (like his vibrant superhero of The Scarlet Pimpernel more than his stern fellows in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Logan, Doctor Who, and Gosford Park)–doubling as a cheeky narrator and a showy huckster named Octavio Colman who attempts to sell to those who find him the best of themselves. That is, of course, only if what we’ve seen in the first two episodes is the truth, although he promises we viewers directly he will be a reliable narrator. Colman is head of the Jejune Institute (which should spark thoughts of the 2000s Dharma Initiative, not the 1970s Jefferson Institute). Is Jejune good or bad? That’s one of the questions the “disorganized collective of (four) currently human souls” must figure out, along with finding Clara, who we know little about so far. Two episodes in, and the four characters are sure to keep you returning for more.
Maybe it’s just a scavenger hunt, a performance a la Cynthia von Buhler′s Illuminati Ball, or a twist on Michael Douglas’s film The Game. A pedal-powered, fully animated “show within a show” has clues, as does a plastic, talking, wall-mounted fish (echoes of Wonderfalls), and other puzzles and codes, which seem to be everywhere, anywhere, and elsewhere.
This one won’t be for everyone, but it does tap into the shared commonality of the human condition in a way that may open new doors for those open to the idea of the show in the first place. As with Lodge 49, the four kindred spirits are willing to grab onto almost anything to move forward from what is holding them back–similarly carried out in a world open to the possibility of fantasy and magic as real. In a way Dispatches from Elsewhere is it’s own modern remake of The Wizard of Oz, with a Phantom Tollbooth fairytale construct holding the door open for the characters and you the viewer… a doorway to possibility.
It’s a promising beginning. Catch Dispatches from Elsewhere Mondays at 9 p.m. Central on AMC.