Last year, back in those halcyon days when we all used to go outside, Dispatches from Elsewhere filmed for several months at locations throughout the city of Philadelphia. It seemed like every person I know had at least one run-in with either Jason Segel or André Benjamin (aka André 3000).
Now that we're all stuck inside, Dispatches from Elsewhere is airing its first season on AMC. Halfway through its 10-episode run, it's emerged as one of the year's best new shows, a visually inventive mystery with strong performances and a breathtaking visual aesthetic that seems inspired by filmmakers such as David Lynch and Wes Anderson. That aesthetic is thanks in large part to its setting: the show makes use of locations in Philadelphia better than any movie or TV show in my memory.
Who is Jejune?
Segel, a well-known actor who’s often written his own projects, created Dispatches from Elsewhere based on The Institute, a documentary by Jeff Hull and Spencer McCall. Under the guidance of showrunner Mark Friedman, Dispatches concerns four Philadelphians (Segel, Benjamin, Eve Lindley, and Sally Field) who are drafted into a "game" by the mysterious Jejune Institute (led by mysterious antagonist Richard E. Grant). The game is essentially a weeks-long scavenger hunt around Philadelphia, with possibly supernatural elements and eliciting a great deal of self-reflection from the characters.
From Fishtown to the Art Museum
The Institute was set in San Francisco, and it appears the production landed in Philadelphia only due to an accident of circumstance (and tax credits). But the city, in Dispatches, is very much a character. It's sort of like how Breaking Bad was set in Albuquerque for tax reasons, but it’s hard to imagine it taking place anywhere else.
In Dispatches, we see familiar places, like Rittenhouse Square and Curtis Center. The fifth episode, exploring the backstory of the mysterious figure "Clara," is set entirely in Fishtown, which isn't exactly a common filming location. In the second episode, the character Simone visits the most recognizable Philly film location of all, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And we see Simone do something so radical, and so unprecedented, that Rocky never did it in any of the eight movies to date: she actually enters the Art Museum and looks at the art.
The characters also meet in each episode at the Continental in Old City, which somehow had never been used as a location in any major movie or show before.
Segel is back
Lindley may be the least known of the five main actors, but she's a standout, a trans actor playing a trans character with a compelling and fascinating backstory, as well as hints of a romance with Segel's character.
The show also marks a welcome return for Segel, who was everywhere, and then nowhere. He spent nine years on How I Met Your Mother, which was one of the best sitcoms ever for about half of its run, and one of the worst for the other half. Segel had a run of starring in Judd Apatow-adjacent studio comedies like I Love You Man and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and he was responsible for conceiving, writing, and starring in 2011’s wondrous The Muppets.
Before Dispatches, Segel's last prominent role was David Foster Wallace in 2015's The End of the Tour. Here, he delivers a morose but often heartbreaking performance.
In defense of the twee
Dispatches has been denounced in some quarters as "twee." I'm not sure I entirely understand the definition of this—it seems to mean "overly whimsical"—but I do know that when things are described as twee, I almost always love them (even if, 80 percent of the time, the word is directed at Wes Anderson movies). At least one set-piece, an Our Town riff in the third episode that had Field's character reliving her wedding day, may be the most beautifully heartbreaking television scene of the year.
While it's gotten a ton of exposure in the local press, I get the sense that Dispatches hasn't quite caught on in a huge way. I'm not seeing a lot of buzz or chatter about it, and while this is the sort of show that might have thousands of people on Reddit trying to "solve" it, most threads on the show's official subreddit have only a few comments.
As long as you're stuck at home this month, I highly recommend falling under the spell of Dispatches from Elsewhere, which is streaming on-demand and on AMC's website.
What, When, Where
Dispatches from Elsewhere airs Monday nights on the AMC network through April 27, 2020. Episodes streaming now.