Tardy to the Party: Dispatches from Elsewhere

Imagine that you receive an invitation to a party that’s scheduled to take place months from now. You make a mental note of the date, then throw the card on your desk, where it becomes buried and forgotten. Weeks pass. Eventually a vague nagging sensation begins to haunt you, accompanied by a little voice whispering warnings from the hidden corners of your mind. “It’s almost time,” it insists ominously, but you have no idea what it’s talking about, so you ignore it. And then one day, you somehow accidentally come across something perfectly ordinary—a song, a photograph, a scent—that makes you realize the voice was right. The date of the party had been approaching…and now it’s here. If you go, you’ll be late; it started hours ago. Are you really in the mood to get dressed and drive all the way over there? I mean, you’ve already missed so much, is even worth going at this point?

You decide to go. It turns out to be a party unlike any you’ve ever experienced. When you arrive, you catch up on what’s happened so far, and enthusiastically participate in everything that happens from that point forward.

Now think of yourself as me. The party in question isn’t a party at all, but a show called Dispatches from Elsewhere. And it doesn’t matter that I’m a week late because television stations notoriously replay episodes of new shows several times after their original airdate, often at odd hours of the night/morning, so it’ll be easy enough to record the first episode on my DVR. Or watch it On Demand.

So I (and, by extension, you) record the second episode before the first (the second episode is recorded “live,” if you will, while the first is a 3am repeat over a week after its debut) even though I currently don’t have time to watch it. One day I will. Maybe during spring break. But an unseen threat looms as a novel virus spreads throughout the population of one country, then another, and I wonder how long it will be before the same thing happens here. Because I know it will. People in the town where I work start testing positive for the virus, and the day before the county officially mandates a required minimum two-week school closure, my school calls a “snow day.”

I (and you too) spend that day going to stores, buying enough supplies to last at least two weeks, still blissfully ignorant of just how bad the situation is. Still, I err on the side of caution and refuse to have Sunday dinner at my parents’ house, despite the fact that I’ve been there almost every Sunday for the past 10 years, just in case I’m carrying the virus. Starting on Monday I work from home. The situation is not without its perks—my cats are happy to have me around all day, it’s nice to sleep in a little, and I get to wear comfortable clothes “at work.” Outside these walls, though, the world has become a terrifying place. Sometimes it keeps me up at night, and I think I have a panic attack at one point. But I can’t spend all day reading the latest updates from the CDC and watching events as they unfold on the news. There has to be more to life than this. And so, I begin to watch Dispatches from Elsewhere, hoping it will bring a little brightness to these dark times.

It’s magnificent.

(By the way, you don’t have to me be me anymore… Take a deep breath and go back to being you.)

I have no recollection of how I discovered this show. Was it the blurb in the March 2020 issue of Entertainment Weekly that I read several weeks after I had received it in the mail? Did I catch a commercial for it at some point? I have an excellent memory, so I find my inability to recall the details (or even a blurry outline) of the circumstances that first made me aware of it slightly disturbing. I also have no idea what suddenly inspired me to seek it out, just in time to record the second episode on time and still have an opportunity to catch one of the additional airings of the first episode. These aren’t important memories, I know, but I don’t like the fact they’re missing, presumably stolen by COVID-19-realted anxiety. I suppose all that matters is that I found it.

Dispatches from Elsewhere premiered on Sunday, March 1 on AMC, though subsequent episodes have aired on Monday nights. The start time for each episode varies, usually occurring anywhere from 10:00pm to 10:30pm, a peculiar touch that is also appropriate given the nature of the show itself. Created by Jason Segel, who also stars as the character Peter, this project gives him a chance to stretch his acting muscles beyond the kind of generic good guy characters he’s typically portrayed. And while he’s repeatedly compared it to The Wizard of Oz (and fact that it’s based on something similar that actually happened in San Francisco from 2008 to 2011), I find it to be innovative. I’ve never seen anything else like it; it’s the proverbial breath of fresh air everyone so sorely needs right now, a story about four strangers: Peter, Simone (Eve Lindley), Janice (Sally Field), and Fredwynn (André Benjamin), who embark on a journey to find a missing girl, not realizing how the experience will change them along the way.

Let me assure you that I’m fully aware that the above summary sounds like a million other shows out there—and after some thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s both extremely accurate and entirely misleading. So fear not—there are various and sundry wonders to behold within this seemingly conventional plot.

I debated over whether or not I should walk you through the first episode, which is my habit when I write about a TV show, because I genuinely didn’t want to take anything away from you experiencing a single episode yourself. But me just “blah blah blahing” without giving you any real substance probably won’t convince you to watch it, and there’s plenty of fanciful sights and bizarre events in every episode, so giving you a preview probably wouldn’t hurt. Even my description of the dancing Sasquatch shouldn’t make it any less spectacular when you actually have the opportunity to admire his moves with your own two eyes.

Wait a second… Did she just say “dancing Sasquatch”?

Yes. Yes, she did.

Now that I have your attention, I’ll begin.

Episode 1 opens with a man dressed in black, sitting in a black leather chair in front of a solid orange background. He just sits and stares directly into the camera for a little over 20 seconds, completely silent and almost motionless, aside from blinking and the slight movements of his head. When he starts to speak, he gets straight to the point—introducing the show to the audience. We meet Peter, an ordinary man living in an ordinary apartment eating ordinary food. He wears ordinary clothes to his ordinary job and does ordinary things. But the suffocating ordinariness of his life is about to change, and we are instructed by our mysterious narrator, sitting up straight in in his stark, obsidian ensemble, to “think of him as you.”

We oblige.

The first indication that the day we’re observing will be different is the fact that a man bumps into Peter on the sidewalk, spilling his newly purchased coffee all over him. It’s not a big change (nor is it a particularly pleasant one), but at least it breaks the monotony of his daily routine. And while he’s stopped, assessing the damage, he notices a flier taped to a signpost: “Dolphin Communications System Testing.” He briefly imagines what that would be like, then suddenly finds himself soaking wet, standing in the downpour that started while he was off in his own little world. Sadly, he fails to tear off the contact information at the bottom of the flier. He moves on to the next signpost, which also bears a flier: “Human Forcefield Experiment.” Again, he imagines what it would be like to participate in such a project, but again decides not to do anything about it.

He continues on to work, and work is filled with work stuff. On the way home, he sees another odd flier: “Memory to Media.” He images this as well, this time spending longer on the possibilities before coming back to the present. That’s when he spots a suspicious person in a black hoodie, black sweatpants, and black sunglasses taping another flier up a few feet down the sidewalk; when the person catches Peter watching him, he runs away. Peter curiously approaches the newest flier and is confused by what he finds: “Have you seen this man?” the flier reads, with an image of the very man who just taped it to the pole.

Finally, Peter takes one of the narrow slips of paper bearing a phone number.

He calls it from his home phone. No one answers.

But then his cell phone rings; the female voice on the other end already knows his name and invites him to a “special orientation session.” Will he go?

Maybe. First, Peter goes to therapy, where we start to understand how awkward and lonely he truly is.

His therapist accidentally gives him the push he needs to attend the orientation. The score is hopeful as he enters the large building with the fancy lobby. A strange woman directs him to the elevator, handing him a key and a set of instructions. An equally fancy hallway welcomes him when he arrives on the indicated floor, its walls adorned with peculiar knickknacks that Peter admires as he walks towards the doors at the end.

The room beyond the doors houses a chair facing a small television set, which turns on shortly after his entrance. The narrator from the beginning is back, giving a speech about how rare and special Peter is. He says exactly what Peter has been waiting all of his life to hear—he is moved to tears. So are we. Because we’re thinking of him as us.

And when the narrator on the screen asks him to fill out an induction card located in the drawer within the small table beside him, we’re eager for him to do so. But as he opens the drawer and lifts the top card off the pile, we notice the red letters written urgently on the card beneath it. We hope Peter will see it too. He does…it warns him not to fill out the card. The card beneath it bears another crimson message, as does the next. And the next. The last one tells him to run.

Peter runs, following the additional instructions on the card until he receives a phone call advising him to report to a different location.

The wall outside this new site proclaims that it’s the “Store with Beautiful Things.” That it certainly is. This is where Peter meets Simone, already inside inspecting the various wares. And while their initial encounter begins with threats, it quickly evolves into a cautious alliance. They decide to do the next part together….the next part of what? We don’t know yet. But whatever it is, the video montage that follows shows us that it’s wonderful and mystical and fun. Peter tells his therapist that the experience made him feel “like there was real magic” and we see how a weight has been lifted off his shoulders. We’re disappointed to hear that the feeling only lasted a few days, that his life has returned to the mundane existence it was before he took a chance and called that number.

Luckily, a ringing phone on a stormy night will lift Peter back out of his humdrum routine. A male’s voice proclaims that he’s urgently needed, and Peter is ready to do what’s asked of him. He’s directed to a random phone on a random wall, where he receives another call. This caller demands that he dance in pouring rain, which he clumsily does.

That’s when things get weird.

A group of teenagers in gray track suits show up blaring music on an old 1980s era boom box and start dancing with him. Enter the Sasquatch (donning a matching track suit), who also joins in. Peter is delighted. We are too.

The Sasquatch hands him a package, the contents of which lead him to a park where he reconnects with Simone. They listen to the next set of instructions together, and meet up with a larger group of people. Everyone has been given a colored paddle, which will identify members of their “immediate family.” Simone and Peter’s paddles match (naturally), and the two search the crowd for others possessing the same color. They find Fredwynn first, standing alone on the edge of the park, holding his paddle high above his head, waiting for others to come to him. Peter and Simone are giddy with excitement as they approach him, but he remains serious and focused. He requests (or, more accurately, demands) that they look for any others who belong to their group while he remains there. He needs to concentrate, he explains. He doesn’t want to miss any of the details in the broadcast they’re all listening to—every word is important. Every word could be a clue.

In the end, Peter and Simone don’t have to locate the final member of their group. Janice finds them as they wander the park, tapping Peter on the back and nervously asking to see their paddles. Relieved that she’s not alone after all, she introduces herself to them, and the pair take her to meet Fredwynn. As the broadcast wraps up, their mission is finally revealed: they need to find Clara, a young woman who’s gone missing.

This newly formed family adjourns to a nearby diner to discuss the evening’s events. Each of them has his/her own idea about what’s actually going on. Fredwynn thinks it’s a conspiracy, Simone thinks it’s a game, Janice think’s it a prank, and Peter…well, Peter reluctantly admits that he thinks it might be real. Nothing is resolved during this initial conversation, but two different kinds pie do get ordered.

Simone leaves the diner first, and we leave with her. We watch as she walks down the sidewalk. We watch as two men harass and chase her. We also watch as she successfully fights off her would-be attackers and runs away. The rest of her journey is uneventful, and when she arrives home, safe and sound, we breathe a sigh of relief. After entering her house and climbing the stairs, Simone enters her bathroom, flicks on the light, and studies her own reflection as she replays the night’s events. Next episode, we’ll think of ourselves as Simone.

And that’s how the first four episodes go—first we think of ourselves as Peter, then Simone, then Janice, and finally Fredwynn. We have no problem thinking of ourselves as any of these characters because there’s a little of us in all of them. Or a little of them in us? Peter is on the verge of accepting the fact that life is nothing more than a series of dull tasks that need to be completed, devoid of any kind of passion or intrigue, desperate to be proven wrong. Simone is adventurous and confident, always ready and willing to complete the next mission, always pushing Peter to go further, but she secretly fears rejection. Janice can be timid and confused, but she’s also clever and sneaky, with Columbo-esque moves so convincing that her own teammates often don’t realize when it’s all an act. Fredwynn is brilliant and determined, but so single-minded and set in his ways that he often ignores other people’s thoughts, feelings, and ideas. He doesn’t always see the people around him.

I don’t want to belabor this next point, but the idea of thinking of ourselves as someone else, putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, has never been timelier. It helps us understand each other and allows us to be compassionate. It makes us better people.

Dispatches from Elsewhere is a whimsical show. There’s no other word that can capture its essence so precisely. I was incredibly pleased with myself when it hit me, that the only word to describe it was whimsical, a word rarely used because so few things in life truly are. I was (a bit embarrassingly) excited to put it in my article. And then I saw it used in several other articles about the show… I was disappointed that those authors stole my thunder, but happy that I was correct in my assessment. However, for all its whimsy, the show also manages to be grounded and real, enough that I believe that the events being portrayed are possible. Unfortunately, the last few episodes haven’t aired yet, and a finale has the power to make or break a show, so I can’t say for sure that I’m still going to think that it’s amazing when it’s all over. But as we all know, it’s not always about the destination—the journey can be just as important, if not more so. Even if this destination doesn’t end up being everything I’d hoped, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the journey. It was a pleasure sharing this experience with these characters—and thinking of each in turn as me.

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