Dispatches From Elsewhere doesn’t feel like a show so much as it does a wish. A man named Peter stumbles across an elaborate game, one that instructs him to go to unusual places and do outlandish things. Answer a pay phone and dance in public until Bigfoot appears. Attend a shareholder’s meeting for a company that doesn’t exist. Unveil a conspiracy or spearhead a revolution. Despite all the strangeness, the show is very clear about what it wants to do: help you to feel connected to other people. It wants to foster empathy. Maybe, in the end, it might pull it off.
But first, the series puts you off-balance with 10 seconds of silence from Richard E. Grant, seated in an orange room, staring at the camera for that entire time. Grant plays Octavio Coleman, esq., a mysterious figure who narrates the show and seems to orchestrate the game that Dispatches From Elsewhere chronicles, and as an actor capable of a frightening and disconcerting sincerity, it’s an effective way to begin.
In his opening monologue, Coleman tells the viewer to imagine themselves as Peter, briefly summing up the circumstances of his life, which aren’t terribly important. What is important is that he is the protagonist, and a story is about to happen to him. Coleman is effectively telling us to watch a TV show, and it would all be too cute of a device to bear if Dispatches didn’t come from a place of overwhelming sincerity.
Jason Segel, who created and stars in Dispatches From Elsewhere, finally returns to TV after a decade in film, writing and appearing in movies like The Muppets and The End of the Tour. As Peter, he is disaffected and disillusioned to the point where he can’t really register how unhappy he is. Then he finds a series of strange flyers, offering to teach him things like dolphin telepathy, and they function as his gateway to the Jejune Institute, Coleman’s secretive organization dedicated to the unlocking of humanity’s strangest potential (hence the dolphin telepathy).
Upon discovering Jejune, Peter also learns that there is another secret faction, the Elsewhere Society, that believes Jejune to be evil and is dedicated to freeing Clara — an unseen woman who is directly responsible for Jejune’s innovations. Longing for some kind of meaning in his life, Peter throws himself into the Elsewhere Society’s elaborate scheme, meeting other people who, like him, have stumbled upon this strange live-action role-play shadow war, scouring the city of Philadelphia for arcane and wonderful clues that will hopefully lead to Clara.
Dispatches From Elsewhere is eager to surprise viewers, eager to dive into the surreal and whimsical at a moment’s notice, but not particularly interested in stumping you. It’s the anti-Westworld, a story where mystery is certainly part of the equation, but not the point. None of the characters seem to truly believe that Jejune and Elsewhere are real, just that this game has pulled them into a world more wonderful than their own, and they’d love to live in it a little while longer.
Instead, Dispatches wants you to sink into the lives of those who find themselves enthralled by this game. Each of the first four episodes is named after a different member of the cast, most begin with Octavio admonishing the audience to imagine themselves as one of them: first Peter; then Simone (Eve Lindley), a trans woman in love with the theater of the game but not necessarily her life; then Janice (Sally Field), an older woman wondering what comes next after you’ve passed all the milestones people prepare you for your entire life; and finally Wynnfred (Andre Benjamin), a man who understands systems more than people and desperately wants to solve the game before anyone else.
There isn’t a thing that Dispatches From Elsewhere does that isn’t clearly signaled from the start. The show wears its heart on its sleeve, and there’s danger in that — earnestness can be cloying, and sincerity without clarity is a one-way ticket to corniness. It helps that Dispatches From Elsewhere is framed around an elaborate larp game — games ask you to suspend your disbelief and social conventions to submit to rules and do strange things. In giving yourself over to a game, you join other people who have made the same concessions you have, and for a little while, you have something in common. The real hope of finishing a game isn’t winning, but that everyone you played with will continue to have things in common.
Dispatches From Elsewhere is a work fully given over to this desire, one that feels particularly potent at a moment when tabletop games seem to be at a previously unseen cultural peak. They’re an offline way to genuinely connect in an online world that lied to us about our potential for connection, a way to be in touch with countless people and care about none of them. But maybe we could all play a game, and for a little while, get to know someone else just because we can.