The particulars of the new AMC show Dispatches From Elsewhere are even stranger after you realize they're based on real events. Show creator Jason Segel came up with the 10-episode anthology series after watching Spencer McCall's 2013 documentary The Institute about "The Games of Nonchalance." From 2008-2011, it was a social experiment created by artist Jeff Hull (who is a producer on the show) who posted flyers that sent around 7,000 people on scavenger hunts across the Bay Area. Participants were given a wealth of clues over pirate radio broadcasts, and some took the puzzles extremely seriously, thinking it was part of some conspiracy or a cult.The story makes for some pretty bizarre TV.
Dispatches from Elsewhere opens with actor Richard E. Grant standing in front of an orange wall staring at the camera. “And now that I have your attention, I’ll begin," he says after what seems like a couple of minutes. "As the first of my many gifts to you, my friends, I suggest we skip the introductions." He proposes ignoring the "limited run-episodic" convention of "spending an unnecessary amount of time to introduce you to our protagonist" and getting right into the story.
The pilot hones in one of its four main characters Peter (Segel), who leads a soul-crushing existence in Philadelphia working for a Spotify-like streaming service. He spends his time eating corner store sushi (occasionally switching it up with a burrito), watching Law & Order: SVU alone, and apologizing to his therapist for "not bringing more to the table" during their weekly sessions. Grant explains Peter's life to the audience in a voiceover: “Think of Peter as you. Peter is you if you lived alone and woke up every weekday to your iPhone still set to default chime 'radar." According to Grant's narration, "this is existing, not living."
Grant, it turns out, is the enigmatic and slightly menacing Octavio Coleman, Esq., the founder of something mysterious called the Jejune Institute. Peter spots several of the company's weirdo fliers advertising a "human forcefield experiment" and a "human-dolphin communication study" in his anonymous commute to work. Calling the number on the posters takes Peter on a convoluted scavenger hunt across the city where he meets fellow adventurers Simone (Eve Lindley), Janice (Sally Field), and Fredwynn (André Benjamin) who all also responded to the flyers. Like the participants from the real-life "Games of Nonchalance," each character has different motivations for responding to the flyers but here they're all searching for meaning in their lacking lives.
Dispatches From Elsewhere takes many of the real-life clues and details from Hull's "Games of Nonchalance" like the Jejune Institute and its equally peculiar counter-organization the Elsewhere Society. But the show's emotional core is how the characters, through this game and their budding friendship, find joy and meaning in their lives. When Peter explores Philadelphia looking for clues with Simone, he says it's like finding magic in the world. Benjamin's disciplined and focused Fredwynn has a challenge he needs to solve and Field's lonely Janice has needed companionship. Any show that can cast Sally Field and André 3000 as pals and make it work is worth the price of admission alone
It's unclear what the scavenger hunt means or what the Jejune Institute even is, which is fine because the characters' collective journey for answers is more rewarding than the answers themselves. Of the four episodes provided for review, each focuses on one character’s story through their own point of view. The best of the bunch so far follows Lindley's Simone, an anxious and sarcastic trans woman who describes herself as a "bitter Amélie." Her backstory is fascinating and the way she interacts with her game-made friends, especially a potentially budding romance with Peter, is particularly compelling.
Home to the excellent and unfortunately canceled Lodge 49 and the masterful Halt And Catch Fire, AMC is the best network for patient, beguiling TV. But more than that, Dispatches From Elsewhere is a visually inventive, charmingly weird, and life-affirming show that's well worth taking on its elaborate puzzle.