AMC’s new series “Dispatches from Elsewhere” is unlike anything else. Airing Mondays at 10 p.m., “Dispatches” is a bit surreal, like the original “Twin Peaks,” deeply emotional like “This Is Us” and quirky like “Lot 49” and “Briarpatch.”
AMC describes “Dispatches” as “an American anthology drama series created by and starring Jason Segel. Set in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ‘Dispatches from Elsewhere’ follows a group of ordinary people who stumble onto a puzzle hiding just behind the veil of everyday life.”
There are four main characters: Segel plays Peter, an emotionally shut-down 30-something millennial who works for a Netflix/Spotify-ish company where he aligns musical choices for subscribers all day long. Simone (Eve Lindley) is a hip 20-something trans woman who favors miniskirts and short boots and works as a docent at the art museum. Andre Benjamin (better known as Andre 3000) is Fredwynn, an impeccably dressed, tightly wound conspiracy theorist, and Janice Foster (Sally Field) is an eager retiree who is used to following the rules.
The series is based on “The Institute,” a 2013 documentary directed by Spencer McCall, reconstructing the story of the “Jejune Institute,” an alternate reality game set in San Francisco, through interviews with the participants and the creators. The game was produced in 2008 by Oakland-based artist Jeff Hull. Over three years, it enrolled more than 10,000 players who, responding to eccentric flyers plastered all over the city, started the game by receiving their “induction” at the fake headquarters of the Institute, located in an office building in San Francisco’s Financial District.
“Dispatches” follows the same basic trajectory but is set in Philadelphia — Center City, Rittenhouse Square, Washington Square, Old City, the Gayborhood, Fishtown and Isaiah Zagar’s magical mosaic gardens on South Street are all on display. The series is lavishly in love with Philadelphia. While there is a good deal of creative geography happening for those familiar with the city, there are no shots of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall — like in so many other films that are supposed to be set in Philly but are shot elsewhere. The tiny side streets of various neighborhoods play their own role here — giving the four main characters a landscape that meshes with their travels and travails.
Peter lives in a grim apartment across from the Racquet Club, which he can see outside his window. He watches old episodes of “Law & Order: SVU” while eating ramen. He’s seeing a therapist who is trying to get him to expand his life, but he tells her that he is settling into the notion that this is it — there is nothing more.
Simone lives in South Philly with her bed-ridden grandmother, who is her emotional lifeline. Nana can read her grandchild easily and references Olivia Benson’s experiences on “SVU” as a metaphor (the show is a trope for “Dispatches”). Nana adores Simone, who allows herself to be held and comforted by her grandmother, even as she keeps the rest of the world at arm’s length.
The opening episode explains how Peter becomes involved with the Jejune Institute, which is housed in a lavish building on Rittenhouse Square. Peter watches the induction film and is reduced to tears by the emotional well it taps in him. Later he is drawn to a mass meeting of other inductees, and Simone, Fredwynn and Janice become his partners for the game. The ways the game zeroes in on people who feel displaced in their lives is both generous and insidious.
“Dispatches from Elsewhere” is too delectable a delicacy to divulge spoilers, but the relationship that develops between Peter and Simone is charming and sweet and deeply moving. Simone has a difficult time navigating the world and feels the world acutely. In a scene where she happens upon the Pride march on Locust Street, she listens to other trans women calling for trans lives to matter, but when they hand her the bullhorn, she feels exposed and runs away down Camac Street. (As with much of “Dispatches,” it’s unclear whether this actually happens to Simone or she imagines it happening.)
Lindley is a breakout star in her role as Simone, and Segel’s Peter is entranced with her, as audiences will be. Lindley’s approach to Simone feels fresh and raw, and her ability to portray a vast range of emotions is awing.
At the Television Critics Association press tour in January, Lindley praised Segel and “Dispatches“ for how Segel allowed her to work with him to create Simone as a character. “It was one of the best depictions of a character, of a trans character that I had ever read. She felt so close to me, and I felt like I knew her, and I felt like I could tell her story. And it was really great because Jason allowed me to interject a lot of myself into her, and you know, we really worked together to bring her to life, I think,” she said at TCA.
“Dispatches from Elsewhere” may not be for everyone — it demands some suspension of disbelief as well as an acceptance of the radical notion that people can, in fact, find each other and joy in a world fraught with anomie and isolation. But Lindley is a revelation, and Segel’s beautiful, restrained performance is heartbreaking.