This review of Dispatches From Elsewhere contains no spoilers.
AMC’s bizarre new anthology series Dispatches From Elsewhere is extremely weird.
This really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise, given that the first episode begins with Richard E. Grant starring wordlessly into the camera for a solid thirty seconds before breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience.
Dispatches From Elsewhere is also extremely confusing and wildly unpredictable. The main plot often feels impossible to pin down, and the supposed good guys often wear the same faces as the designated bad ones. It’s difficult to even describe the series to someone who hasn’t watched it in a way that even remotely encompasses what it’s about. But the ultimate effect of all this? A sort of narrative alchemy that leaves us wanting more, even as we admit that we’re not entirely sure what it is that we’re watching.
Dispatches From Elsewhere is utterly unlike anything else on television right now, with all the highs and lows that sort of ingenuity has to offer. There are moments that defy all convention —at various points the story is told via cartoons, 3-D animated flipbooks, and a talking Billy Bass fish—and those that leave you wondering if the show can ever provide answers to all the questions it’s proposing or straighten out its crooked narrative.
But, let’s try.
Grant plays a man named Octavio Coleman, the founder of the mysterious Jejune Institute, an organization which dabbles in bizarre technological pursuits like building helmets to communicate with dolphins, and VR headsets that can replay human memories. He may also be the mastermind behind an elaborate roleplaying game that involves sending broken souls combing throughout the city of Philadelphia to find strange clues, interact with street dancing Bigfoots and search for a lost girl named Clara. Or he could be the monster that’s actually imprisoned Clara and is using her for his own nefarious ends, while battling a rag tag group of resistance fighters known as the Elsewhere Society.
Or maybe all of the above? Who can say?
The answers to basic questions like what’s going on in this series, who we’re supposed to trust, what’s real, what isn’t and whether Octavio is the reliable narrator he claims to be—well, they aren’t any clearer at the end of the four episodes that were available to screen for critics than they are at the beginning of the show.
And you know what? It doesn’t really matter at all. (Plus, I’m assuming—believing? hoping?—we’ll get there, eventually).
Dispatches From Elsewhere is a clever, frustrating, heartfelt, and inspiring tale of the human condition, spun out through the story of four people brought together by something that’s larger than themselves. Granted, we don’t know what, precisely, that thing is just yet. Nor do we know whether it’s something that’s good or bad. But, thus far, that feels like part of the journey.
How I Met Your Mother’s Jason Segel returns to television—in a series he’s helped create, by the way—as Peter, a lonely data analyst at a streaming music service whose life has been stuck in an endless grind of sameness. Thankfully, Dispatches From Elsewhere doesn’t force us to spend its first episode watching him realize that fact, and simply speeds us to the moment in which his personal life rut full of boring bodega dinners and faceless work colleagues changes. (Thanks for that, at least, Octavio). After seeing a bizarre flyer left by a masked man on a street light, Peter finds himself calling the Jejune Institute, and either waking up to the unfortunate dull reality of his own life, or running from an imminent threat to it, depending on your perspective.
Fair warning, the series’ first episode can feel like something of a slog to get through. Dispatches From Elsewhere leans hard into its quirkiness factor in the beginning, and that can feel fairly off-putting at times, particularly given how little we understand about what we’re even watching. Thankfully, by the time it rolls into its second episode, the show settles a bit more fully into its own groove, letting its innate and lovely weirdness speak for itself without quite so many external flourishes.
By first episode’s end, Peter finds himself in a strange shop full of strange antiques and steampunk cosplay dreams, where he meets Simone (Eve Lindley), a woman who’s been receiving similar messages from the Jejune Institute and finds them something thrilling, rather than something to be feared. Her bright joy at the prospect of the adventure they’re both embarking on is infectious, and thankfully balances out much of Peter’s gloomy confusion.
Through the first four episodes of the series, each installment focuses on a different one of our (presumably) main characters, each of which Grant’s Octavio returns to tell us to see as ourselves. There’s Fred Wynn (Andre Benjamin), an awkward genius with an eye for clues and patterns, but no understanding of people or social interactions. There’s Janice (Sally Field), a cheery retiree struggling to process her own problems at home by throwing herself into the adventure of this “game”. And Simone, who may or may not be destined to serve as Peter’s love interest, but who is certainly on her own journey of discovery along the way.
No one should be terribly shocked that Field is terrific here, imbuing Janice’s relentless optimism with an edge of desperation that speaks to the fact that her life, for all its good parts, hasn’t turned out quite the way she’d hoped. But the breakout star of this series is hands-down Lindley, a trans actress playing a trans character who’s full of nuance and layers. Lindley’s ability to make the most of the smallest moments—a visit to Peter’s office, in which she assumes he’s embarrassed by her presence and not his job itself, her inability to speak when handed a microphone during a pride celebration—land emotionally is fairly incredible, However, the question of whether Simone’s in-game partners realize she’s trans isn’t directly addressed in the series—or at least it hasn’t been yet—and I have to admit I’m torn about whether or not I need this moment to become a plot point, or if having them simply accept her for who she is without making a Teachable Moment out of it is the way to go. I’m thinking the latter, but I suppose we’ll have to see.
It feels strange to recommend a series so strongly when it’s so opaque about what its goals and motivations are, narratively speaking. But Dispatches From Elsewhere isn’t a puzzle box, full of clues for viewers to unravel as we follow these people down into this labyrinth of weirdness. Instead, it asks us to see ourselves in these protagonists, and value the human nature of their stories beyond the truths and lies about what’s happening around them. And that’s what makes all the difference. Personally, I can’t wait to see where this journey goes next.
Dispatches from Elsewhere premieres March 1 at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.