AMC’s ‘Dispatches From Elsewhere’ sends characters (and viewers) on a surreal scavenger hunt

Richard E. Grant as Octavio in AMC's "Dispatches From Elsewhere."
Richard E. Grant as Octavio in AMC's "Dispatches From Elsewhere."Jessica Kourkounis/AMC

And now for something completely different — so completely different that it nearly defies description. If creator Jason Segel ever succeeded in making an elevator pitch about his new series, “Dispatches From Elsewhere,” it was only because he was in a skyscraper and the buttons for every floor were pushed. The drama, which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC, is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma presented as a cryptogram in the back of a Greek translation of “Finnegans Wake.”

Watching the first four episodes of “Dispatches From Elsewhere” is akin to jumping into the middle of “Lost” without a clue. I could clearly follow the action from scene to scene, as the four main characters rush through Philadelphia on what appears to be a scavenger hunt devised by an obscure organization called the Jejune Institute. But I had no clear idea of whether the story was science fiction, psycho-dramatic surrealism (like “Man Seeking Woman”), a video game with human avatars, or all that and more. I’m still not entirely sure about genre. And yet I was not bored or frustrated as the characters’ dreams became real, as their memories became open to alterations, as backstories were told in animation. Almost miraculously, “Dispatches” is oblique, but not off-putting.


Here are the parts of the puzzle that are clear. Each member of our lead quartet is in need of a change, a new understanding of the meaning of life, when he or she finds flier invitations from Jejune. Segel’s sad Peter is terribly weary as he goes through the motions of a dull data job, no social life, and bad takeout sushi. Simone (Eve Lindley) is a trans woman hoping to move on to new adventures as herself. Janice (Sally Field) is a nervous but nurturing wife who needs something like the hunt to escape her oppressive home. And Fredwynn (André Benjamin) is a tightly wound, socially awkward, brilliant bundle of paranoia. Each of the first four episodes focuses on one of them, and Fredwynn’s episode — the fourth — is the most revelatory, as he looks into the Institute and its use of social media data.

The P.T. Barnum of the piece is Octavio, a mad genius who may or may not be evil. Played with portentous brio and meta-awareness by Richard E. Grant, Octavio isn’t just the leader of the hunt. He’s the narrator of the show, like the M.C. in “Cabaret,” in a way, or the author himself (Thackeray) in “Vanity Fair.” He sits facing the camera silently for an absurdly long time at the very opening of the series, then says, “And now that I have your attention, I’ll begin.” Some of his verbal meanderings are tiresome, but Grant is masterful in the role. Lindley, too, is engaging enough to shine through the obscurity. When the existential queries of the script start feeling like a black box production of “Waiting for Godot,” she and the other actors make the human stakes palpable. Each one of them is Alice chasing a white rabbit down a rabbit hole, longing for something more.


By the way, the series is based on a 2013 documentary called “The Institute,” but I don’t want to describe it here. Best to enter “Dispatches From Elsewhere” with no advance knowledge in order to experience its strangeness and evasiveness firsthand, as the characters do. I found myself both enchanted by the show and curious about its endgame. I’m intrigued.



Starring: Jason Segel, Richard E. Grant, Sally Field, Eve Lindley, André Benjamin


Premieres Sunday night, 10-11

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.