The AMC network miniseries DISPATCHES FROM ELSEWHERE ended this past week, and because of its timing, the show ended up being a clarion wakeup call for the nation to get its priorities straight. Ostensibly a show about an elaborate scavenger hunt, the series ultimately became a plea for community, the idea of “we” instead of “me,” banding together to ensure a better world to live in. I can’t imagine a show being more timely in the middle of a pandemic where human selfishness threatens to usurp not only the progress made via social distancing but the very lives of millions. DISPATCHES FROM ELSEWHERE reminded us that we share this planet and the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the individual, even if he or she feel they desperately need a haircut.
Cleverly, the show created by star Jason Segel did not start each of its ten episodes with such an obvious plea. Instead, almost everyone began with an enigmatic narrator named Octavio (Richard E. Grant) talking directly to the camera, imploring each of us at home to imagine ourselves in the shoes of one of the characters onscreen. That’s right, human empathy was its invitation. How prescient. It was meta like few shows ever have been. It invited us to solve its mystery and relate directly to those involved in it as well.
The first episode began with Octavio telling us about Peter, the sad-sack character played by Segel. “This is Peter,” Octavio intoned. “Think of him as you. Peter is you if you live alone and wake every weekday to the iPhone alarm set to the default radar ringtone.” It was a cheeky way to cut through the wasted minutes of exposition plaguing most programs. The narrator ensured us there were more pressing issues afoot. His tidy opening also established Peter as our “in” to the narrative, the everyman we could relate to, without having to be told to, throughout the yet-to-unfold hero’s journey.
Then, as the series rolled out each of its ten weeks, Octavio introduced us to the backstories of the other main characters participating in the plot’s wilder and wilder goose chase through the streets of Philadelphia. Peter’s teammates would go in search of Clara, a prophetic teen who has disappeared off the grid. In search of her were three other characters not only playing along but also trying to find themselves in all the chaos of the world. They were Simone (Eve Lindley), a young woman both sensitive and sassy in equal measures; Fredwynn (Andre Benjamin), a rich, know-it-all who fancied himself the ultimate sleuth; and Janice (Sally Field), an aging housewife anxious to connect with the living after so many months taking care of her invalid husband at home.
Together, these four worked together to solve the various tiers of the game, and in doing so, they also discovered a better understanding of themselves and each other. Additionally, they discovered the beauty of the world around them – the sights, sounds, and pleasures they didn’t know existed or had previously ignored. The spoils of the games included simple pleasures like a delicious piece of berry pie, an urban mural, even a museum full of antiques like old appliances and television sets. These were the true “finds” discovered during the treasure hunt.
Indeed, as the series progressed, those paying close attention started to realize that the mystery at the center of the show was essentially a McGuffin. That’s the phrase Alfred Hitchcock coined for an object or device that serves to trigger or drive the plot. Sure, there were some wonderful revelations to be found in the final episodes, mostly in identifying just who Clara was and why/how/when she disappeared, but there were better mysteries solved. The real missing persons were those four players searching for something better in themselves and their lives.
Even Octavio, the assumed god-like puppet master, wasn’t quite as he appeared. As played by Grant, the character was a deliciously clever tour guide through it all, half CEO, half Puck’s bad boy. As we got to know him more too we realized that he was cajoling us to enjoy the journey more than any actual victories in the game. Sure, that’s an ancient sentiment, but it’s still a better way to live.
It was almost as if John Butler, the wise old curmudgeon from the Spiritual Unfoldment videos on YouTube was of the cowriters of Segel’s story, lending his sage wisdom on grounding oneself in the here and now. DISPATCHES FROM ELSEWHERE was beckoned us to look beyond the surface and see how much more was there, both in the TV show, and in our world away from it.
The show often played coy, even obtuse at times, coaxed into a dreamlike state by a hypnotic New Age score written by Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross, and Claudia Sarne. (It soothed almost like an ASMR recording at times.) The show, based upon ideas expressed in THE INSTITUTE, a 2013 documentary by Jeff Hull and Spencer McCall, was wholly self-conscious, calling out Hollywood cliches as well as our blind willingness to go along with such tropes. In the final episode, when Jason Segel showed up playing himself, it was a rug pull blasting predictable narrative as well as gently scolding us for wanting easy, pat answers in a finale. The show seemed to be cajoling us to realize there’s more to any story, and sometimes we need to step outside of it for a better perspective.
Segel not only created a doozy of a mind-fuck with it all, but his performance was as good as he’s ever given, both heartbreaking and hilarious, sometimes simultaneously. He also wrote vivid roles for each of his costars to play and they did, to the hilt. Benjamin managed to make his stubborn character lovable even in his prickliness. Lindley, in a star-making role, exuded vulnerability and tenacity, her heart forever on her sleeve. And Sally Field continues to do extraordinary work in her sixth decade of being a star. Her Janice was warm and caring, but spicy and iron-willed too. Everyone had a lot more to them than met the eye. Just like the game, just like the series. And no matter how much they grew as individuals, they couldn’t have done it without their team.
Which brings it all back to what’s going on in our nation right now. Despite our quarantining, we will need to eventually come out of how homes, come together and figure out what kind of new world we’re going to live in. There’s no going back to the same-old/same-old after this. It’s going to be a challenge navigating our way through the new paradigm, and it’s going to take all of us working together to make it successful and make it stick.
DISPATCHES FROM ELSEWHERE was clever, involving entertainment, but it was so much more than that. It ended up being a parable for our times. The elsewhere in the title pointed to the promise of a better place. We’re going to need more than dispatches from there, more than just glimpses; we’re going to have to live there and the time to plan on doing so is in the here and now.