Any TV pilot takes on no shortage of challenges, especially one committed to creating a unique narrative populated by an eclectic assortment of characters. Dispatches From Elsewhere struggles a bit to find just the right balance between drawing us into its sometimes charming, sometimes unnerving world and also letting us get to know the people in it. But there’s plenty of flair and fun to make up for its deficits.
Dispatches begins with a promise from the mysterious Octavio (Richard E. Grant), staring directly into the camera: He is not here to waste your time. Instead, he is here to quickly induct you into an experience that may or may not transform you personally, but will definitely change the lives of these characters, beginning with the first episode’s titular hero, Peter (Jason Segel, who also writes and directs the episode).
Octavio comes into the narrative (after an unnerving, perfectly timed delay) to introduce us to Peter, living the sort of hapless life that many might find themselves sinking into. Peter’s daily routine is set up as generic to the point of painful: waking up to the sound of the default iPhone alarm (which I hadn’t realized was called Radar), walking to his job at a Spotify-like music streaming service, walking home and eating bodega sushi for dinner while watching TV. Thanks to Octavio’s narration, we get through this bit in just two minutes, before fast-forwarding to the day when “everything” changed.
What changes, specifically, is that after seeing a number of strange flyers posted around town, Peter is finally inspired to rip off the tab and call a number after seeing a man in a hoodie post a flyer asking “Have You Seen This Man?” — which features a man in an identical hoodie.
Calling that number leads to Peter getting invited to visit the Pennsylvania headquarters of The Jejune Institute. “To those dark horses with the spirit to look up and see, a recondite family awaits,” the woman on the other end promises him — and after a session with his therapist, where he admits that he’s struggling to with “the idea that this is it — that this is what life is,” he decides to follow through on that invitation... and down the rabbit hole he goes.
This feels like a good place to pause and mention that Elsewhere, the show, is officially credited as inspired by the 2013 documentary The Institute. But its real inspiration is the documentary’s subject matter: The immersive experience (sometimes referred to as an “alternate reality game”) known as The Jejune Institute, which anyone in San Francisco could stumble upon from 2008 to 2011. This is a genre of storytelling that defies naming, but when done right generates exactly the feelings Peter describes here — the sense that magic is really possible in this world.
Peter’s induction session initially moves him to tears, as Octavio, via a monitor, tells him that he is the “rarest of souls,” that he is “meant for more,” and that it’s time for him to join the “special ones.”
But then things take a dark turn when Peter discovers notes scrawled across the induction cards, warning him that he’s in danger and that he needs to run. Fleeing the office per the card’s instructions, he gets a call from Commander 14 of the Elsewhere Society, “the mortal enemy of the Jejune Institute” (who also happens to sound a lot like Richard E. Grant), telling him to go to another location — this time, a quaint junk shop operating on the honor system.
The only person there is Simone (Eve Lindley) who becomes his new partner on this adventure — the two of them team up to solve another set of clues, revolving around the missing Clara. The show doesn’t dig explicitly into the puzzle they solve together; what matters is that it’s an experience that wakes Peter up on a whole new level, letting him see the potential for adventure and wonder in everything.
Just as that feeling has begun to fade, Peter gets another call and gets sucked back into the mystery — this time, after being called to dance on a rainy street with a team of breakdancers that includes a Bigfoot (sure!), he’s summoned to a local park, where Simone, as well as over 60 other people, are holding various colored paddles that eventually clump them into teams.
Simone and Peter are grouped with two strangers: Janice (Sally Field) and Fredwynn (Andre Benjamin), and this newfound family unit decamps to a local diner to discuss their theories about what, exactly, is going on. Peter wants to believe that there’s something real here, Janice thinks it’s more likely a prank; meanwhile Fredwynn is convinced a deeper conspiracy lies underneath the surface of what Simone thinks is a game with a clear objective — find the missing Clara, and “rewards will abound.”
While they can’t agree about what this thing is, they all seem committed to engage with it, for their own individual reasons. Peter’s motives at this point are very clear: He’s chasing a feeling that, in some ways, seems like it could genuinely save his life — or at least, makes sure he starts living it again. But then the episode changes focus, with the camera literally following Simone out of the diner as she walks down the street at night... which is not the safest thing to do.
Her walk home gets split-screened with that of a Betty Boop-esque cartoon, transitioning into a savage reminder from the narrating Octavio that “life is not a cartoon,” accompanied by two burly men accosting Simone. Thanks to a very handy can of mace, she’s able to subdue them and escape, and while, when she gets home, she’s clearly shaken by the experience, she still tells her Nana that overall, she did have a nice night.
And now, Octavio tells us, it’s time to focus on a new player. “Think of Simone as you,” he says, snapping his fingers. And wouldja look at that? The next episode, which airs tomorrow, is called “Simone.”
The smartest thing about this as a premiere episode is that while Dispatches leaves a lot of elements unsaid, it’s pretty explicitly clear to the viewer exactly what kind of show it is. Some games aren’t for everyone, but those charmed by Peter’s naivete and intrigued not just by the latent mysteries but the other characters introduced here will undoubtedly want to keep watching.
- Eve Lindley, as the one relative unknown in the cast, is such a scene-stealer, and one of the most exciting aspects of the show so far is her palpable chemistry with Jason Segel.
- However, watching her get attacked on the street is incredibly tough viewing, given the statistics about violence against trans people.
- Simone’s initial theory that whatever they’ve stumbled upon is “a new ad campaign or something” is perhaps a sly reference to the fact that many of the most famous immersive experiences that have been produced were in fact marketing for projects including A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the video game Halo 2, or a new Nine Inch Nails album.
- Speaking of Nine Inch Nails, Atticus Ross, alongside Leopold Ross and Claudia Sarne, is doing the music for this show, and so far it’s hitting just the right notes of eerie, inspirational and (when appropriate) suspenseful.
- Hi! So I’m thrilled to be covering this show for The A.V. Club, because in case it wasn’t clear from the above, I really love immersive and interactive experiences. (I do hope future episodes feature more puzzles, though.)