TV viewers haven't seen much of Jason Segel since How I Met Your Mother ended its long run in 2014. Even moviegoers haven't seen him as much as they used to. Throughout that show's run, Segel starred in, and sometimes wrote, big comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement, and The Muppets. In his first film after Mother, 2015's The End of the Tour, he delivered a well-measured performance as David Foster Wallace and suggested he'd begin segueing into lead dramatic roles, but since then he's mostly appeared in supporting parts in indie movies. That long absence alone would make AMC's Dispatches From Elsewhere notable even if the unusual, unpredictable, and sneakily moving show didn't make it obvious Segel wanted a return to TV be on his own terms. This show, which Segel created, isn't the work of someone easing himself back onto television by playing it safe.
That's apparent from the first shot of the first episode, which frames Richard E. Grant against an orange background as he stares at the viewer for an uncomfortably long time before saying, "And now that I have your attention, I'll begin." Grant plays Octavio Coleman, Esq., founder of the Jejune Institute, an organization dedicated to unusual scientific pursuits like dolphin communication or devices that record memories to media. Maybe. Or he could be part of an elaborate roleplaying game that ropes in participants to an increasingly elaborate narrative that sends them combing the city for clues and interacting with odd characters, like a figure who appears to be a yeti wearing a top hat. Or, maybe the game is the cover for something more sinister and the resistance group that's sprung up to protest Jejune and to rescue a seemingly imprisoned woman named Clara has the right idea. Or maybe it's all something else entirely. And, if all that wasn't confusing enough, the series is based on a 2011 documentary called The Institute about the real (or "real") Jejune Institute, the brainchild of a San Francisco artist named Jeff Hull. (Dispatches, however, fully commits to being a Philadelphia show and makes terrific use of locations throughout the city, particularly in later episodes.)
What exactly is going on in the series — which premieres on AMC on March 1 — is no clearer at the end of the four episodes I watched for review. That also doesn't really matter all that much. The series is as intriguing as it is heartfelt thanks to stylishly imaginative storytelling and richly developed characters. A certain amount of pleasant confusion seems to be intentionally hardwired into the series. So does a clear set of influences that threatens to overwhelm the series in its first episode then recedes as Dispatches comes into its own. Segel clearly looks to Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, and Michel Gondry as models, and the mix of melancholy, dread, and whimsy can be a little heavy-handed in the 10-episode series' first hour, which switches on a dime from images of a foreboding, rain-soaked street to an appearance from a boombox-toting breakdancing crew. Fortunately, Dispatches from Elsewhere relaxes its foot from the quirkiness pedal by episode's end, making it easier to sink into the strange world it creates.
Segel plays Peter, a data analyst at a Philadelphia-based streaming music service whose life has become a dull, repetitive, and lonely grind. If he seems a bit too much like a number of edge-of-middle-age male protagonists wondering what life is all about, the series at least acknowledges that from the top; Octavio's introduction assures viewers they'll be skipping past the usual set-up in which we learn the particulars of Peter's life as, in his words, "the first of my many gifts to you." Whatever his past, Peter's clearly in a rut, one that comes to an end when he decides to respond to a series of intriguing flyers and reach out to the Jejune Institute.
A weekend visit to an almost outwardly normal-looking office building — shades of Being John Malkovich — leaves Peter in tears when a recording from Octavio tells him he's meant for better things than the life he's been living, but also fearing for his life when he receives some messages suggesting that Octavio and his group might be up to no good. From there he's drawn to a peculiar shop stocked with antiques and curiosity where he meets Simone (Eve Lindley), a woman who's thrilled to be pulled into the Jejune Institute intrigue and offers to join him on his search.
By episode's end, Peter and Simone have been joined by Janice (Sally Field) and Fredwynn (Andre Benjamin) in their quest to get to the bottom of things. Also, by episode's end, it's become clear that Dispatches won't just be Peter's story. Each of the first four episodes puts a different character at the center of the action as Octavio returns to explicitly invite viewers to put themselves in their shoes for the hour. Where Peter, though well-played by Segel, is an extremely familiar sort of character, the others are not. Benjamin's understated performance as Fredwynn, a genius with severely underdeveloped social skills, confirms that he's quietly developed into a subtle, effective character actor since leaving Outkast behind. (See also Claire Denis' High Life.) Field is, unsurprisingly, terrific as Janice, a retiree for whom the Jejune mystery provides a welcome relief from trouble at home. She plays Janice as an almost unfailingly upbeat optimist, but a scene in the third episode lets her stretch the character in some moving, unexpected directions. (It's best left unspoiled beyond noting it's the best moment of these opening four episodes.)
The real surprise here, however, is Lindley, a trans actress playing a trans character, though whether or not her new friends know this about her — even Peter, whose attraction to her clearly has a lot to do with his enthusiasm for the mystery — remains unclear. In the second episode, Simone visits Peter at his office. When he says he's embarrassed, Lindley lets waves of regret and discomfort wash across her face until he clarifies that he's embarrassed because his office and job are so boring. It's a remarkable bit of wordless acting and Lindley's a terrific find who easily holds her own playing against her more experienced co-stars.
So where is this all going? In the long run, Dispatches has been described as an anthology series, suggesting that any future seasons would feature different characters and may or may not revolve around the Jejune Institute at all. In the near term, who knows? Unpredictability helps define this first batch, which sometimes lapses into animated sequences, other times use what looks like outdated technology to put characters into their inner lives. But Segel smartly keeps the seemingly labyrinthine story grounded by focusing on the hopes of four fragile characters determined to follow this rabbit hole into which they've stumbled until they find bottom. Disptaches from Elsewhere makes it easy to want to join them for the journey.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Dispatches From Elsewhere premieres Sunday, Mar. 1 on AMC.