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Josh Reviews Dispatches From Elsewhere

Jason Segel created and stars in Dispatches from Elsewhere, a bizarre, twisty tale of four oddballs who become friends and deeply affect one another while participating in an elaborate social experiment/game that may or may not actually involve the true-life disappearance of a young, innovative artist many years earlier.  This ten-episode series aired on AMC last spring, and it seems to have gone mostly under the radar.  I suspect some people might find its wry, off-kilter tone to be off-putting — but I found it to be a pleasing delight.  I’m glad I took the journey, and I think this series is worth your time if you missed it last year.

The series is engagingly playful with the normal structures of TV dramas.  There’s a meta, self-aware aspect of the series right from the very beginning, in which Richard E. Grant speaks directly into the camera and addresses the viewer.  (The series gets extra-super-duper meta in the final episode, which is the one aspect of the series that didn’t quite work for me.  More on that later.)  I loved Mr. Grant’s monologues, which opened most every episode.  They were just the right balance of intriguingly weird to hook my interest.  But it wasn’t just those opening monologues; throughout the series, I enjoyed when the show took the opportunity to play with the typical structure of a TV show, from the guy literally saying “work stuff, work stuff” to Jason Segel’s character at one point in the premiere (in a scene which called for work-related dialogue that wasn’t actually relevant), to the cartoon introduction to Janice’s background in episode three, and many more examples like that.

The series is packed with mysteries, and the ten episode season takes the viewer on a fun, twisty ride.  (There are definitely shades of Lost to be found in all the twisty-turny mysteries and the men-who-might-not-be-what-they-seem and their bizarre introductory videos…)  I enjoyed the mysteries, but the reason this show worked for me were the characters.  I loved the exploration of these four people — each very different, each damaged in their own way, and each played by a fantastic actor.

Jason Segel plays Peter, a shy, lonely person who feels trapped in his boring data-entry job and his isolated existence.  Mr. Segel is compelling as always, although he’s played this sort of sad-sack, lost soul before.  I always love seeing Mr. Segel on screen (I’ve been a huge fan ever since Freaks and Geeks), but I appreciated how he and the show allowed his co-stars room to shine.  Eve Lindley is a revelation as Simone, a trans woman whose jovial nature belies her deep insecurities.  I was delighted by this character and I loved the slow, patient way in which the show unpacked the levels of her story.  I’m now a huge fan of Eve Lindley and I can’t wait to see what she does next.  (Click here for a terrific interview with Ms. Lindley.)  André Benjamin is electric as Fredwynn, a brilliant but paranoid and extremely socially awkward fellow.  I love how abrasive and disruptive the series allows Fredwynn to be, while rewarding those (his friends on the show and we viewers at home) who take the time to look beyond his surface shell and get to know the human being underneath.  (I loved the extraordinary moment in episode eight in which Fredwynn follows Janice to the hospital and asked her “what can I do?”)  And then there is Sally Field, who is luminous as Janice, a woman looking for her next steps in life now that her grown children have left her house and her long-time husband lies in a coma from which he will likely never emerge.  (The moving scene in episode three in which the older Janice speaks to herself on the day of her wedding was one of my favorite scenes in the entire series.)  All four people are broken and isolated in different ways, and all four find some measure of healing over the course of their madcap experiences together.

This is a series with a lot on its mind.  And while its reach sometimes exceeds its grasp, I respect the ambition of Mr. Segel and his collaborators.  This is a series whose heart is in the right place.  In the very first episode, Richard E. Grant’s character speaks of “the illusion of separateness” that causes all human strife.  Stories about finding the humanity in everyone, about how we have so much more that connects us than divides us, are, I think, more important now than ever.

The series isn’t perfect.  I didn’t love what was supposed to be a sweet moment of Peter singing a Les Miserables song in public in episode seven.  (That was just so embarrassing I found it nearly unbearable.)  And I wish I loved the final episode more than I did.  The series takes an extremely meta turn in that final episode, and it’s an idea that I can see working on paper.  But in my experience of watching the show, I had fallen in love with the four main characters.  I was invested in their journey and wanted to see how their stories resolved.  And so I wasn’t as interested in a story that was suddenly more about the existence of this show as a TV show I was watching, rather than my being able to continue to spend more time with the TV show characters who I’d grown to know and love.

That being said, I was quite taken with this bizarre, unusual ten-episode series.  It doesn’t look like there will be a season two, which is a bummer.  But, on the other hand, these ten episodes were thankfully designed to tell a complete story, and I’m quite happy with what we were given.

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