There are isolated moments of grandeur within “Dispatches From Elsewhere,” an eccentric new anthology series from creator and star Jason Segel. What feels like a wake-up call for anyone who’s been binge-watching TV too long (yes, hello, it is I, your diligent TV critic), the hourlong AMC drama begs its viewers to stop watching life and live it by stacking the screen with peculiar wonders. A hidden 3D city is unveiled from a specific rooftop viewpoint; dolphins are trained to communicate with human divers; a wandering Bigfoot carries his own ID card (name: Professor Foot), and, perhaps most charming of all, Richard E. Grant serves as a not untrustworthy narrator for and character within the increasingly quirky narrative.
Yet covering all this delightful tomfoolery is a sense of sincerity and superiority that make it feel like the show is daring you to laugh at it before bothering to earn your respect. “Dispatches From Elsewhere” has a few moments of genuine insight, mostly found through Simone, played by newcomer Eve Lindley, but a patronizing tone and grating execution limit the show’s impact. Like a scavenger hunt you can’t take part in, the 10-episode series is easy to appreciate from the outside without actually drawing you in.
As an ensemble drama trying its damnedest to weigh each cast member equally, the first four episodes tell one character’s story through their own point of view, but the premiere does itself little favors by starting with a very common onscreen protagonist. Straight white man Peter (played by Segel) is lonely, bored, and fully aware of both. He apologizes to his therapist — who he only sees because she’s included on his medical plan — for not “bringing more to the table.” Yes, Peter is so boring, he apologizes to his therapist for boring her, but the problem isn’t that Peter is boring to watch — Segel, who’s exaggerated delivery is still formulated for sitcoms, is still an easily identifiable sad-sack, even a decade removed from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”
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The problem is our narrator, Octavio Coleman, Esq. (Grant), promised he wouldn’t waste our time with the “unnecessary filmmaker convention” of introducing our protagonist by listing “his occupation, the particularities of his life, and, most importantly, the obstacles that stand in the way of his happiness.” (Of course, Coleman also admitted he lied once during his introduction, so maybe that was it.) Peter isn’t a hard man to understand because he’s not designed to be, and yet these meta promises expose the show as being a little too simple itself. The audience doesn’t need to be told why they might identify with Peter, as Coleman does by saying, “Peter is you if you [fill in the blank]” — wake up to your iPhone, or work a reliable but uninspiring corporate job, or any number of common activities for a single 30-something.
Even as the following episodes branch out to less culturally common lead characters — like Janice (Sally Field), a 60-something woman who’s stuck in mom mode while struggling to be a free-and-easy individual, or Fredwynn (André Benjamin), a 30-something black man who might be on the spectrum and is definitely way too focused on being the smartest guy in the room — the narrator insists on explaining why you, dear viewer, might be able to identify with these people. While this choice may sound bold and different, most shows actually ask the same thing, only without drawing attention to the request; they simply create distinct, compelling characters and put them in an intriguing situation. This naturally breeds empathy from the audience (sometimes to a problematic degree), but seeing oneself in a TV character isn’t a revolutionary request, and it feels patronizing here — and slightly othering when done with minority characters, as though there’s no possible way a Janice-type watching at home could connect with a Fredwynn-type if the show didn’t explain exactly why they could.
All of these folks plus Lindley’s Simone, whose second episode is definitely the best of the lot, are brought together by an elaborate game of chance. Individually, they all respond to a flyer on the street and go through a windy sequence of events until they’re on a team, playing what may or may not be a game, in order to do… something. The puzzle leads them from a secret room to a hidden neighborhood, from one mysterious philanthropist to his benevolent opposition, from protests to shareholders’ meetings. Along the way, each of the four put forth theories about what the game is designed to do: Is it just a means to get them out of the house and meet people? Is it part of a company’s grand plan to indoctrinate new followers? Is it not a game at all, but a ruse hiding a deeper, darker meaning?
Such a doggedly pursued and highly valued answer hints at a more wide-ranging aspiration: that the answer to the game might also explain the meaning of life. Some characters just want to have fun. Others need to find meaning. Their experiences are meant to open their minds — and ours — to new possibilities, and like Segel’s “Aw shucks, I just want to put art out into the world” attitude, the intentions of “Dispatches From Elsewhere” are unimpeachable. Certainly, they’re high-minded enough to inspire curiosity in where this show is going, and Simone’s individual arc may very well be enough to make the 10 hours worth it. (Segel and AMC have remained obtuse about the show’s future, labeling it an anthology series without explaining whether a second season would feature the same cast, story, or what else.)
“Dispatches From Elsewhere” is about a scavenger hunt, but that scavenger hunt is also an all-too-obvious allegory: As Peter, Simone, Janice, and Fredwynn put the clues together to find a path forward, both in the game and within themselves, viewers are meant to see how they can find similar meaning within their own lives, as well. Maybe, like Peter, you need to be more adventurous. Or perhaps you’re too serious, like Fredwynn, and just need to kick back a bit. But “Dispatches From Elsewhere” feels like it’s as disconnected as the title implies; as though each episode is a message from a faraway place featuring faraway people that are too formulaic and flat to believe in. Perhaps the show works as an invitation to go find your own scavenger hunt, but the incentive shouldn’t come from being frustrated with watching this one.
“Dispatches From Elsewhere” premiered at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival. AMC will release the first episode Sunday, March 1 at 10 p.m. ET and the second Monday, March 2 at the same time. New episodes will be released every Monday night.