AMC’s “Dispatches from Elsewhere” is an ambitious, strange drama with eccentricities that often overwhelm what works about it. After four episodes, I have no idea what’s really happening, but I think that’s part of the point. It’s a show about people breaking out of their shells, and the idea is often that the break is what matters, not what happens when they get to the other side. However, I found "Dispatches from Elsewhere" increasingly frustrating in episodes three and four, as it seemed to almost push me away more than pull me in. There are strong performances throughout, including one that qualifies as a breakthrough from an incredibly charismatic young actress, but the characters seem to disappear into a fog once they get past their introductions.
Technically, AMC only sent what could be called the introductions as the first four episodes of “Dispatches from Elsewhere” all center on a different member of a quartet of protagonists. The premiere introduces us to Peter, played by Jason Segel in a purposefully flat performance that nonetheless threatens to become so minor that he literally disappears. Peter is an average guy living an average life. He can’t remember the last time anything interesting happened to him, or the last time he had a real human emotion. Life has become numbing routine. Until he finds the Jejune Institute.
Making a call from a random flyer, Peter finds himself a part of some massive game—clues hidden throughout the city that lead to new discoveries and more clues, many of them about finding someone named Clara. It seems to be run by a mysterious leader named Octavio Coleman (Richard E. Grant), but there are other figures pulling strings from “Elsewhere,” setting Peter and his new friends on a wild goose chase that somehow seems to open them up to a new world and new ideas.
About those friends—Peter is partnered up with three people who are the focus of the other three episodes: Simone (Eve Lindley), Janice (Sally Field), and Fredwyn (Andre Benjamin). Simone is externally confident but internally anxious, and wishes she could feel as comfortable in the world as she does when she’s alone. Janice has been a dutiful wife and mother for years and tragedy is now pushing her back into the real world she always thought she’d be more a part of when she was young. Fredwyn is a wealthy genius who becomes obsessed with the game—its purpose, its puppeteers, its endgame. Each gets a major episode, with the other three playing supporting roles, of course.
There are moments of grace and beauty through all four episodes of “Dispatches from Elsewhere,” but its overall tone of forced eccentricity and lessons about life started to wear on me over time. It may simply be a show that works better in weekly doses—this critic had to watch it consecutively in order to file—than it does binged. Believe it or not, there are some shows that are better spread out than consumed in a row, especially programs this purposefully left-of-center.
Presuming “Dispatches from Elsewhere” finds more of a footing in subsequent episodes, it will remain worth watching because of its cast. Grant is having a blast; Benjamin should work more often; Field is always great. The real breakthrough here though is Lindley, who steals pretty much every scene she’s in with the most complex and interesting character to start the series.
“Dispatches from Elsewhere” is loosely based on a 2012 documentary called “The Institute,” about real people becoming obsessed with a massive game and its many secrets (that film’s director actually produced this and wrote an episode). I was a fan of the doc—it was even a part of the first Chicago Critics Film Festival—and never could have imagined that it would have been turned into a weekly drama, but it makes sense in retrospect. After all, we live in anxious times of daily routines that don’t do anything to alleviate that anxiety. A lot of us are looking for a way to break through that fog. I’m just not yet sure that “Dispatches from Elsewhere” has any idea what’s on the other side.
Four episodes screened for review.