AMC's new series Dispatches From Elsewhere is… different. The 10-episode story follows four characters and the immersive alternate reality game that connects them. As the mystery unfolds, a bizarre new reality — which was apparently hiding right behind the veil of their mundane everyday lives — begins to present itself. The question soon becomes: Is this all just a game, or is it actually real?
Dispatches From Elsewhere was created by Jason Segel, who also stars alongside Oscar-winner Sally Field, Grammy-winner André Benjamin, newcomer Eve Lindsey, and Oscar-nominee Richard E. Grant. In other words, the cast is stacked, but the show’s far-out concept may be an even bigger draw. From the show's fourth-wall-breaking narrative structure to its hand-made aesthetic inspired by modern surrealist filmmakers like Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman, Dispatches set out to create a unique television experience.
"There’s a lot of things we do throughout the season that are just kind of a call to wake up, for all of us," Segel said during a panel at the 2020 Television Critics Association winter tour in January.
The How I Met Your Mother alumni joined the show's core cast in shedding some light on the quirky project. Later that day, Mark Friedman, the Dispatches showrunner, sat down with Inverse to help explain what the heck is going on in AMC's surreal new series.
Here are five things to know about Dispatches from Elsewhere, according to Segel and Friedman, ahead of the show’s premiere on March 1, 2020.
5. Jason Segel had an artistic identity crisis, and it partially inspired the show
Taking on the lead role on a show a big responsibility — and a new one for Segel — but acting in Dispatches From Elsewhere was just one of the many tasks the actor set out for himself. Actor, writer, show-creator, and director, Segel wore many creative hats in order to get this show made.
Why give himself such a loaded plate? As Segel explains it, he had just finished a decade's worth of work on television and hadn't done "an artist check-in" with himself in quite a while.
"The things that I was sort of known for were no longer relevant to me," he says.
It can be very easy to get lost in a role, especially if you've been doing the same job for 10 years. What happens when all that ends? How difficult is it, as a performer, to reconnect with your identity again?
"That was a really scary and interesting feeling I hadn’t encountered in a long time, not knowing what to do next,” Segel says. “Not really knowing who I was at 34-years-old, because who I was had been dictated to me for quite a long time.”
"I wanted to write about that. I thought that that was a really interesting subject."
4. The show was inspired by a 2013 documentary about a real-life alternate reality game
During the show's TCA panel, Segel briefly referenced stumbling into "this crazy experience in real life" that he participated in. The experience he's talking about is "The Jejune Institute," an alternate reality game that took San Francisco by storm. According to Vice, the game — or was it a cult? — "inducted" more than 7,000 players between 2008 and 2011.
What exactly was this game/cult/experience? That's up to interpretation. Multiple reports were posted on The Awl during the height of its popularity, calling Jejune a "part public-art installation, part scavenger hunt, part multimedia experiment, part narrative story." It all unfolded for the 7,000+ players in a real-time, organic manner that led many to question their preconceived notions about the world around them.
Spencer McCall, the director of the documentary in question, explained the allure of The Jejune Institute in a separate interview with The Awl in 2013.
"What a lot of these people got was this sense of spirituality or a sense of something more going on in their reality,” he said. “And who cares if that’s created by people instead of a magic thing? These people got this sense of congregation, and they came together."
3. A trans actress plays Jason Segel's love interest, and she's pretty damn great
In the series, Segel's Peter quickly forms romantic feelings for Simone, another player of the mysterious game. What makes this relationship so special is the simple fact that Simone is a trans woman played by Eve Lindley, a trans actress.
"I think that the story is unlike anything that I’ve seen on TV," Lindley said during the TCA panel. "I hadn’t really seen a trans woman be portrayed as, like, a love interest and lovable, and a fully well-rounded character. So, I was really, really jazzed about it."
Amazon's Transparent may have helped push trans representation forward on television, leading to three Emmy wins for Jeffrey Tambor for his performance as Maura Pfefferman. But thanks to shows like Orange Is the New Black and Pose, actual trans actors and actresses, are finally getting to play these roles, which helps to present a more accurate portrayal of a community that’s often misrepresented on screen.
"I had a sense that this changes everything," Segel adds. "That’s how I felt when I auditioned with Eve."
2. It’s got whole Michel Gondry/Charlie Kaufman thing going on
The best way to describe the aesthetic of the show is by calling it, Michel Gondry-esque, and Mark Friedman completely agrees.
"Michel Gondry, definitely. And Charlie Kaufman, where there's like, a sense of loneliness," he tells Inverse. "There's sort of an altered reality, like a heightened reality, which the show has."
That heightened reality is explored through colorful music cues, long silences, stylistic camera work, and multiple forms of visual storytelling, including some throwback '70s-style animation.
"As much as possible throughout the season, I tried to use unconventional storytelling to force you to pay attention," Segel adds. "That’s the idea behind a lot of the storytelling that happens. There’s a lot of things we do throughout the season that are just kind of a call to wake up, for all of us."
Friedman says, multiple times, that Segel is "The Muppets Guy." Aside from writing and acting in 2011's The Muppets, Segel added a memorable storyline in 2008's Forgetting Sarah Marshall, in which his character Peter writes and performs a musical puppet show. And while the new series is not (as far as we know) connected to Jim Henson's creations, a similar handmade style exists here.
"I wanted it to feel like it was made by hands, not by a computer," Segel continues. "So, I guess in the Michel Gondry sort of world, I just wanted it to feel like we made it because there’s something that makes you feel tenderly towards something that you know is handmade."
1. It’s an anthology series… we think
AMC is calling Dispatches From Elsewhere an anthology series. But when asked for more details, both Segel and Friedman were a bit tight-lipped.
"All I can say is that I know Jason and I work great together and hopefully he would say the same thing," Friedman says. "And this cast, we adore. It's like a family and we would love to find other ways to tell stories going forward. But we can all revisit this after we've seen the ending."
"I actually don’t want to give too much away about what might happen if we were lucky enough to continue," Segel adds. "The whole thing is an interesting, fun, exciting experiment, so we’ll see where it goes."
Dispatches From Elsewhere premieres Sunday, March 1st.