The Artist is (Too) Present: On "Dispatches From Elsewhere"

Watching a snake eat its own tail in just ten episodes

Dispatches From Elsewhere (AMC)

From the opening of its very first episode, Dispatches From Elsewhere invites you to see yourself in it. Piercing the fourth wall with his steely eyes, Richard E. Grant’s narrator addresses us directly. Equal parts warm and menacing, Grant’s Octavio talks to us with the slow, mellifluous confidence of a professor who’s about to spring an impossible-to-solve problem on his class. Showing us the repetitive life of Jason Segal’s Peter (a sad sack who’s so indecisive that asking him to choose whether or not to eat cake or pie for dessert is tantamount to asking him to back Israel or Palestine), Octavio asks us to see ourselves in Peter. “This is Peter. Think of him as you.”

Throughout Dispatches From Elsewhere, we are asked to do this with every major character. The narrator grants us insights into the motivations and neuroses that spur Peter, Simone (Eve Lindley), Janice (Sally Field), and Fredwynn (Andre Benjamin) into participating in the Jejune Institute’s elaborate game. We are asked to see ourselves in Fredwynn’s manic obsessiveness, in Janice’s fear of isolation, in Simone’s reluctance to commit herself fully to anything. “Think of him/think of her as you.” It is a testament to the skills of the ensemble and the overall quality of Elsewhere’s writing and production that it’s not hard to comfortably slip into their shoes for a bit.

Dispatches From Elsewhere sustains that feeling of identification and immersion with its characters over its first nine episodes until it destroys it in its finale. “Our story is our own,” Fredwynn insists in the closing moments of “The Creator,” the show’s penultimate episode. Fredwynn is wrong, though: it was never his or our story at all.

The Institute (Argot Pictures)

On the surface, Dispatches From Elsewhere is a story about four people who get swept up in a performance art “battle” between two forces: the New Age corporation The Jejune Institute (think of a cross between Esalen and the Church of Scientology) and street art-loving anarchists The Elsewhere Society. Pulling tabs off cryptic fliers promoting memory machines and dolphin communicators scattered across town, each member of “Team Blue” gets inducted into the game—a city-wide alternate reality adventure that’s a combination of flash mob happening, puzzle-solving, scavenger hunt, and short-form improv rehearsal. 

The game is based off of a real-life event, the Games of Nonchalance, which ran from 2008-2011 in the Bay Area. Masterminded by Oakland artist Jeff Hull, the Games get a posthumous rundown in the 2013 documentary The Institute. Watching The Institute after going through Dispatches From Elsewhere, you can see how deeply the Games influenced the show—right down to the core cast (Benjamin’s Fredwynn seems to be based off one of of The Institute’s interview subjects, a player who became so obsessed with the “reality” of the game that it turned him into a agoraphobic recluse).

While many signature elements from the Games are depicted in Dispatches (like the Jejune Institute’s induction ceremony and the spontaneous Sasquatch dance party), the game itself isn’t the engine that drives the show. When we do get glimpses of the Elsewhere Society or the Jejune Institute in action, it comes off as goofy cosplay— a million dollar LARP run amok. It’s the relationships between the four leads that makes the show compelling. The mysteries surrounding the game (is it real? why is this happening? are our characters in danger, or is this version of the game as benign as it actually was in real life?) aren’t particularly interesting or substantial. We care about the game only to the extent that our characters care about it. You could just as easily make a version of Dispatches in which the four leads are students in a Level One improv class and it would still work.

The central relationship and source of tension in Dispatches is the will-they/won’t-they attraction between Peter and Simone. It’s Dispatches’ most quietly revolutionary aspect: a love story between a cis male and a trans woman that doesn’t make a big deal about the whole thing. The things that drive them apart and keep them from getting together have nothing to do with gender or sex. It’s their own personal shortcomings and psychological issues that keep them from getting together.

There’s an exchange between them early in the series that’s very telling. Simone surprises Peter by visiting him at his job at a a streaming service; Peter, tense and embarrassed, tells her she shouldn’t have come. Lindley, without saying a word, conveys Simone’s anxiety and sadness—it’s obvious she thinks Peter is embarrassed to be seen with her in public. Peter, oblivious to this, reveals the reason for his shame: he’s horrified that she’s seeing him “like this”, being boring and lame at his dull corporate job.

The painfully awkward, sometimes beautiful, love story between Simone and Peter is 2020’s most interesting TV relationship. The show brings the two together, only to pull them apart, over and over again over the first eight episodes but does it in a way that feels organic and true to the characters— rather than trying to stall for time or engineer romantic angst and drama for its own sake. It runs the risk of drifting into Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory at first. Peter, a blank slate of a man who’s trapped in an endless routine of eating grocery store sushi and watching SVU reruns, is practically begging for a Manic Pixie intervention. Dispatches is careful, though, to keep both characters from falling into that trap. Simone is just as broken and fucked-up as Peter in her own way, and the ultimate responsibility for fixing Peter’s life falls on his shoulders. It’s only when he finally makes an effort to figure out who he is and what he wants out of life that he gains the maturity needed to be in a relationship with her.

While much of Dispatches is focused on the prolonged shipping of Peter & Simone, Janice and Fredwynn also have hefty dramatic arcs. Much like the low-key rendering of the cis/trans relationship, Janice’s narrative arc feels like a story you rarely ever see in pop culture: the story of an older woman trying to sustain multi-generational friendships while going through a late-life crisis. Guided/antagonized by a vision of her younger self (played by Tara Lynne Barr), “Old Janis” has to sort through her anxieties about living the rest of her life for herself now that her lifelong partner is comatose. Field emerges as the series’ MVP, giving Janis a feisty spirit and granting her a quiet, devastating dignity whenever she voices her fears that her younger teammates just see her as a grandma that they’ll abandon when the game is over.

Benjamin, as the paranoid genius Fredwynn, isn’t given as much to do at first. His Fredwynn is an irritable cipher—the smartest man in the room who’s impatiently waiting for everyone else to catch up with him. As Dispatches goes on, Fredwynn becomes its most affecting and tragic figure: a man whose obsessive focusintellect separates himself from the rest of humanity, who slowly learns how to empathize and relate to others as shakily and tentatively as a baby taking its first steps.

By the time we get to the show’s ninth episode, the Games of Nonchalance have concluded and most of the leads have moved on with their lives. Janice is going back to school (with Young Janis by her side) and the Good Ship Simeter has finally set sail. Fredwynn, though, doesn’t take the end of the game well: he’s retreated into the deepest recesses of his mind, trapped in a fugue state where he imagines himself to be the show’s new narrator. When the rest of Team Blue are able to call Fredwynn back to himself, they confront the creator of the Games, Lee (Cherise Boothe) and learn the real reason why she did all this. After this presumably final revelation, a strange clown boy (who’s appeared without explanation throughout the series) shows up and whisks Peter away.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the moment where the show swallows its own tail and chokes on it.

(Spoilers after the photo)

Dispatches From Elsewhere (AMC)

“Our story is our own,” Fredwynn says as he leads Janice and Simone into the unknown, trailing after Peter and the clown boy. Unlike the ladies, he seems to know exactly what’s in store for them⁠—in the midst of his derangement, Fredwynn saw The Boy (the only other character to do so aside from Peter) and seemed to punch through reality to enter the same fourth-wall rupturing space that Octavio occupied. Fredwynn is the only character who’s realized that HE is a character in a work of fiction. He, like everyone else in Dispatches, is (to borrow a phrase from comic writer/occultist Grant Morrison) a fiction-suit for Jason Segal.

The finale for Dispatches exists completely outside the “reality” of the show. After watching a black and white Hollywood fable of The Boy gaining fame and fortune through a slapstick dance routine (set to Singin’ In The Rain’s “Make ‘Em Laugh”), we see Segal at an AA meeting. At first, we think it’s still Peter: he has the same hang-dog energy. But it turns out to be the show’s creator himself, talking about his disillusionment with his career, his drinking problems, his feelings of being lost and unsure of what to do with himself.

Meeting a woman named Simone after the meeting (also played by Lindley), he gets an invitation to experience the actual Games of Nonchalance in San Francisco. After going through his own version of an urban scavenger hunt and meeting a helpful Games volunteer (played by Field), Segal writes a script called Dispatches From Elsewhere and pitches it to an executive (Benjamin). The episode cuts to our quartet lying on a grassy field, watching the series on a screen. Segal talks to the other three like they are still their characters. They reminisce about the experience of being in the show, and then Segal takes a page out of the Holy Mountain playbook and orders the camera to pull back—revealing the entire cast and crew of the show.

Segal, like Octavio and Fredwynn before him, directly addresses the audience. He outright states the themes of the show: the importance of connection, that our pain is not unique, that we are all each other on some level. To underline this point, they show videos submitted by audience members to form a Greek chorus of “I am you’s.” And then we end this first (and only?) season of Dispatches From Elsewhere the way we started it: one last direct communique from Grant’s Octavio, who snaps us away.

Credit where credit is due: this wasn’t a safe choice. Ending a series with a meta-biographical origin story out of nowhere is definitely a curveball. And while it’d be easy to accuse Segal of resorting to this sharp left turn as a way of avoiding the need to write a real ending for his characters, that seems unfair: it’s clear from seeds planted all the way back in episode one (and from the continued appearances of The Boy) that this was always the imagined endpoint. The real question to ask, at the end of all this, is whether or not this was a SATISFYING conclusion.

Grant Morrison’s Animal Man (DC Comics)

In 1990, Grant Morrison ended his groundbreaking Animal Man run with a similar twist. Over the course of his three-year run on the title, Morrison planted clues and ominous portents that some mysterious, God-like force was manipulating Animal Man’s reality. In the series climax, Buddy Baker (aka Animal Man), having lost everything and everyone he cares about, finally meets his maker: Grant Morrison. On paper, this would seem like an incredibly cheap and disappointing reveal— but Morrison pulls off this meta turn beautifully. The secret to his success: he made himself into an asshole.

The Morrison Baker encounters is a disinterested Gnostic deity, a God who couldn’t give a fuck about the suffering of a fictitious being. Like Daffy in Duck Amuck, Buddy doesn’t accept this quietly— he rages against his apathetic creator, refusing to accept that he’s just a narrative conceit, that his pain isn’t unique or meaningful. Morrison essentially rewrites the Book of Job, giving that poor ever-suffering bastard a chance to finally give the Almighty a piece of his mind.

Stephen King would also insert himself into his own fiction, appearing as the author of all creation in his Dark Tower books. Unlike Morrison’s enraged Buddy, King’s creations put their feelings aside and rally around him—one of them going so far as to sacrifice his life to keep King alive so the universe can continue to exist. King is only a minor character in the Dark Tower saga, but he places himself at the center, the living spoke that the wheel of his multiverse spins around.

Segal adopts the King approach, to the show’s detriment.

His richly sketched characters, who we’ve come to intimately know and love over the course of nine hours, don’t get their chance to really come face to face with their Creator. They are simply pieces of Segal’s psyche, as the finale makes painfully obvious: his desire to have a younger self around to tell him what to do next (Janis), feeling paralyzed by indecision and fear of the future (Peter/Simone), being caustic and alienating people who try to get close to him (Fredwynn), and his feelings of being a sell-out who compromised his artistic integrity in the name of courting success (Lee). Now that we’ve met the fully integrated Jason, the Real Jason, the avatars of his fears and desires leave the frame.

The problem is that we don’t have a reason to care about Jason Segal. We care about Janis, Peter, Simone, Fredwynn. To have the finale switch its focus to the show’s creator feels like a bait & switch: “here’s the real story behind the story, the story that actually matters.”

It also feels redundant because so much of the story behind “The Boy” was already covered in “The Creator.” Segal’s feelings of disillusionment and regret over his artistic choices were already expressed by Lee. We saw Segal movingly depict those emotions through fiction… and now he’s re-enacting those same feelings again, but this time as himself. The entire final hour of the show feels like a summation of its themes, baldly stating what the show is about and how you should feel about it. Instead of letting you solve its puzzles, it spoils its Games of Nonchalance for you.

Dispatches From Elsewhere (AMC)

Perhaps most damning of all is how the final episode’s “your pain is not unique” sentiment undermines the series as a whole. In the moment where Field’s volunteer tells Segal that, it makes sense. It’s meant to be a healing balm, a cure for solipsism— ‘what, you think you’re the only one who doesn’t know what to fucking do with themselves?’

But the truth of it is that our pain IS unique. Simone’s fears about being rejected and queer-bashed, Fredwynn’s disintegrating (and possibly on the spectrum) mental state, Janice’s anxieties about being patronized as a “beloved elder” and getting left behind by the world—these pains are unique to them and people like them. They shape and define them—the boundaries from which they have to learn to grow comfortably beyond. No matter how well-intentioned Segal is being with “your pain is not unique,” the truth is that he can’t know their pain. And many of us, the audience members being invited to think of ourselves as them, can’t either.

The beauty of Dispatches, when it works, is that it gets us close to understanding people who aren’t at all like us. It gets us to love them for their unique quirks AND for their pain, their distinct traumas. We love those characters because they feel like people we could meet one day, possibly after pulling a tab on a strange flyer stapled to a telephone pole. Long may they live in Divine Nonchalance.

Dispatches From Elsewhere (AMC)

Chris Gaines Fact #2

“A recording session with Chris is all about vibe. Gaines will NOT step into the booth until we’ve laid down magenta rose petals across the entire floor—piled five inches high. He’ll set up these wax burners and perfume the room by melting batwing-scented cubes. And then he’ll usually spend the first half hour of the session rubbing essential oils into his soul patch. He won’t sing a note until that thing is glistening like sunlight reflecting off chrome. It’s kind of blinding, actually; I have to wear sunglasses when I’m manning the faders or that damn thing will burn my eyes out.”

-Dennis LeStrange, producer/mixer on The Lamb Reloaded and We Shine In The Dark