If Judd Apatow, power-producer, has effectively sculpted the Mount Rushmore of contemporary comedy, Freaks and Geeks was his original workshop. In the 20 years since the short-lived NBC series left the air, Freaks hasn’t just given us the careers of performers from Busy Philipps to Martin Starr; it’s yielded a handful of bona fide auteurs. Seth Rogen made his name as the mascot of a new age of stoner comedy, but he’s become a patron in his own right, shepherding projects like Black Monday, Preacher, and The Boys. Over the past couple of years, James Franco has faced allegations of sexual misconduct that make his impact much more complicated, but Franco’s polymath career—including the direction of features like The Disaster Artist and episodes of The Deuce—is nonetheless in the Apatovian mold.
Of Freaks and Geeks’ beta-male leads, Jason Segel is the last to try his hand at a writers’ room of his own. Segel wrote the script for 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a breakup comedy that came after Knocked Up and Superbad in the late-aughts wave of Apatow ventures. But rather than follow Rogen or Jonah Hill on the path to movie stardom and, eventually, his own projects, Segel spent nearly a decade on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, where he’d been cast several years before his big-screen breakthrough. A 2015 turn as author David Foster Wallace in James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour signaled an interest in expanding his oeuvre into more conventional prestige, but it took five years for that interest to reach its logical conclusion: a seasonal anthology series with Segel as both creator and star.
Dispatches From Elsewhere, which premiered on Sunday night on AMC, is a surreal fantasia based on real events. From 2008 to 2011, a multimedia artist named Jeff Hull transformed the greater San Francisco Bay Area into an adult playground, deploying thousands of willing participants in an elaborate alternate reality game, or ARG. Luring in players with fliers and an “induction ceremony,” Hull’s gambit then immersed them in an elaborate mythology, which included the mysterious Jejune Institute, their rivals in the Elsewhere Public Works Agency, and fictional characters like Jejune founder Octavio Coleman, Esq., and a missing girl named Eva. The stunt culminated in a “socio-reengineering seminar” at San Francisco’s Grand Hyatt, in which actors delivered a “message of unity” to around 150 people. Hull’s exploits were chronicled in the 2013 documentary The Institute, on which Dispatches From Elsewhere is officially based.
As bizarre as the events of Dispatches From Elsewhere may be, then, they’re not original to the show. What Segel and his writers introduce are four participants in the mysterious scavenger hunt, all very different but at the same, questioning place in their lives where they would throw themselves into a series of quests based on little more than a scrap of paper. Segel plays Peter, an anhedonic sad sack sleepwalking through his unchanging routine; Eve Lindley is Simone, a museum docent who becomes Peter’s love interest; Sally Field is Janice, a widow rediscovering her own identity after years of marriage and motherhood; and André Benjamin (better known as Outkast’s André 3000) is Fredwynn, an obsessive consumed by his pursuit of the Jejune-Elsewhere affair’s true origins. (Segel also transplanted the action to Philadelphia for budgetary reasons, though there are still hints of the Bay if you know where to look; there’s more than a whiff of Burning Man in the slightly renamed Elsewhere Society’s fondness for free love, glitter, and anarchic parades.)
Because it is, ultimately, fiction, Dispatches From Elsewhere is free to take more poetic license than even Hull did in his intricate schemes. The show leaves open the possibility that the scavenger hunt, with clues delivered by a Bigfoot in a top hat and secret messages transmitted via Big Mouth Billy Bass, is more than just a practical joke. The resources of full-scale film production certainly allow for a deeper level of immersion: When Segel’s Peter first reports to the address on Jejune’s street flier, it’s to an office building that seems hundreds of stories tall, populated by grinning automatons straight out of a Jordan Peele movie and filled with dark, labyrinthine passages. The “induction” video, played on a retro, ’50s-style TV, is hosted by none other than Richard E. Grant, who plays the possibly nefarious Coleman and also serves as de facto narrator.
Dispatches From Elsewhere is filled with such carefully choreographed zaniness that it temporarily distracts from the standardized scaffolding beneath. Every protagonist gets their own point-of-view episode in the four chapters sent to critics in advance, and the show hamstrings itself by starting with its two most broadly drawn figures. Peter is, at the end of the day, a bored and dissatisfied yet ultimately comfortable white guy who finds excitement through the women and people of color who are positioned (by virtue of Peter’s serving as our entry point into the larger story) as supporting players in his emotional journey.
Even in a spotlight episode of her own, Simone becomes less a person in her own right than an aide for Peter’s self-discovery. “I met you and I felt something,” he tells her; “You’ve never seen the French film Amélie, have you?” she asks him. Simone, who is trans, is exceptional as a love interest on a basic cable show, but she’s otherwise an almost shockingly textbook execution of the manic pixie dream girl trope. Lest she feel deprived, Simone gets a two-dimensional crutch of her own in a sympathetic grandmother. It’s flat stereotypes all the way down. Janice earns the most compelling story line, but by the time you get to her stirring tale of love, loss, and independence, you might be too jaded to tune into Dispatches’ insistently earnest frequency.
As that hammer-subtle Amélie reference indicates, Dispatches From Elsewhere contains levels of whimsy potentially harmful to small children. The contours of the game pit the cold, unfeeling Jejune contingent against the scrappy, jubilant Elsewhere squad, whose dedication to free thinking is helpfully translated into the visual shorthand of brightly colored clothing and a steampunk aesthetic. This simplistic, Manichean dichotomy is in turn fleshed out through a series of structural flourishes that do more to signal the show’s intention to be eccentric than serve the story. Grant frames every episode by addressing the camera, instructing the viewer to “imagine [the current POV character] as you”—already the implicit message of most narrative art. Exposition is delivered in the form of short animations. A scene at a protest abruptly shifts to handheld, shaky camerawork for no apparent reason.
Dispatches From Elsewhere aspires to disorient and surprise, just as Hull did with a small army in his transportive gaze. But on top of borrowing much of its mythology from real life, the show also deploys a host of easily identifiable influences: The Twilight Zone; Charlie Kaufman; Michel Gondry, and especially the collision of his magical realism and Kaufman’s cerebral self-consciousness in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In interviews, Segel has compared Dispatches From Elsewhere to his Forgetting Sarah Marshall character’s musical about Dracula: a moonshot effort that reflects his specific sensibility and interests. What comes through in the final product, however, is less a singular vision than a capable rendition of many others’.
The launch of Dispatches From Elsewhere comes on the heels of AMC’s cancellation of the two-season cult show Lodge 49. (My continued condolences to my colleague Miles Surrey.) Dispatches From Elsewhere hits many of the same beats as its fallen sibling, suggesting their shared patron is still interested in filling a very particular niche: spiritual ennui, vague mysticism, the appeal of collective ritual in a decentralized world. Dispatches From Elsewhere is just louder than Lodge 49 was, if ultimately less successful. With the end of Better Call Saul in sight and competitors like FX newly boosted by streaming partners, AMC is still casting about for its next step, looking for answers to an existential problem—in this case, being a premium cable network in a streaming-heavy world. In that, at least, it’s not unlike its newest hero.