What do you get if you combine the bleak social discourse of “Black Mirror,” the wittingly jarring voice of Peter Strickland, and the dreamlike sensibility of Leos Carax–before adding an unwelcome squeeze of out-of-date social commentary? Jason Segel’s “Dispatches From Elsewhere,” apparently: An anthology series which yields a fascinating metatextual spine and great performances, yet comes up short in its murky musings on contemporary trans politics. The resulting cocktail is potent, and certainly interesting, but strangely saccharine—far from an unpleasant taste, but not one you’d rush to re-order.
The key strengths of “Dispatches From Elsewhere” lie in its stylistic whimsy, of which it is quick to establish. The show’s opening scene introduces us to our narrator, the clean-cut, turtleneck adorned Octavio—portrayed by the ever wonderful Richard E. Grant, who brings an abundance of slightly unsettling charm to the role. He speaks to us directly, breaking the fourth wall—advocating, off the bat, for doing away with narrative conventions. The first twenty minutes of a new series would typically be to establish characterization, Octavio notes—motivations, goals, conflicts. In lieu, he offers two refreshing minutes of exposition, introducing us to Jason Segel’s anxious everyman, Peter.
Peter wakes up every day to the default alarm on his iPhone, walks to his monotonous day job down the street, and then walks home when he’s off the clock. Perhaps he stops for a bagel on the way back, as a treat. “Dispatches From Elsewhere” advocates for the disruption of these patterns. So, as Octavio has already given us all the goss, it’s quite a pleasant break from conventional form when Peter’s work-sleep ritual is shattered almost immediately—by a poster stapled to a streetlamp, no less. It’s an invite to the ‘Jejune Institute,’ a mysterious think-tank which needs subjects for its distinctly sci-fi experiments: Everything from communicating with dolphins to human force fields.
It’s a delightfully strange construct, rich with all the mystery and intrigue of a noir flick. Moreso than anything “Dispatches From Elsewhere” acts as a call to disrupt the mundane, meeting our everyday routines with sublime twists. Peter’s break with responsibility is to follow the invitation to the institute, which is manned by a robotic staff with disconcerting smiles. They speak in verse-like, lyrical dialogue, very similar to that of Fatma Mohamed’s wonderfully odd Miss Luckmoore in Strickland’s “In Fabric” (I’d wager that the homage is intentional). From here, spurred by mysterious voices on telephones and dossiers—the show at large has an enjoyable analog sensibility—Peter embarks on a fantastical journey.
In one particularly vivid sequence, Peter is drawn to an outdoor gathering, where hundreds of people wield paddles which are several shades of blue. These paddles are used to separate them into groups; Peter is paired with Janice (Sally Field), Simone (Eve Findley) and Fredwynn (an excellent Andre Benjamin, following his surprise turn in Claire Denis’ “High Life”). They’re given the ambiguous task to find ‘Clara.’ Is it a prank, a game, a conspiracy—or real? They each draw different meanings. The ensemble shares great chemistry. Benjamin and Field particularly shine, the latter holding an endearing reverence for the former, a narcissistic, but wonderfully dry, conspiracy theorist.
What doesn’t serve “Dispatches From Elsewhere” so well is the relationship between Peter and Simone, which feels oddly misconceived. Simone is a self-critical trans woman who lives under the weight of constant facade. Her insecurities are clearly rooted in the traumas she has faced since coming out—things have not changed as wildly as she had expected prior to transitioning. Peter is broadly empathetic—as is, to its credit, “Dispatches From Elsewhere.” Their relationship soon breeds romantic tension.
Peter’s approaches are initially rejected, and the show seems to suggest that fault lies at the feet of Simone. “Up next,” she at one point states, “Simone making a fool of herself.” It’s jarring to see Simone blamed for what is the result of trauma for which she is entirely faultless. It’s a frustrating misstep, only compounded by the show’s oddly blase virtuosity. “Maybe people are looking at you,” Peter says, “because you’re pretty?” A surely well-intended but oddly naive remark. It seems to ignore the danger in which trans people find themselves on a day-to-day basis in the United States and abroad.
This isn’t to say that the show is ruined by murky politics, but you certainly wince. The stylistic acumen of “Dispatches From Elsewhere” remains strong, if somewhat derivative of more successful works, and performances are strong across the board, particularly those from Grant, Findley, and Benjamin. But these strengths, paired with the show’s playful metatextuality, are certainly held back, to a slight degree, at least, by a well-intended relationship arc which is unfortunately misjudged. [B-]