The show opens with Octavio (Richard E. Grant) before an orange background and silence for about 20 seconds. This opening silence, followed by a monologue where he both introduces us to the series and to Peter (Jason Segel) is a thing of brilliance. He breaks the fourth wall by telling us that we are watching an entertainment called Dispatches from Elsewhere, and promises that will make more sense later. He offers us the gift of foregoing an extended introduction to the character—something I am personally so tired of—by giving us a quick rundown. But then, at the end of the day, he tells us he has lied to us once, even though we should trust that he is a reliable narrator. For the life of me I can’t guess what that lie is, so that sets up a certain intrigue here from the get-go.
That breaking of the fourth wall, though? That’s going to continue to be a thing to think about, because as Dispatches from Elsewhere S1E1 proceeds it gets into some sticky territory with its characters and their relation with this “narrator.”
Tragedy in its Most Quietly Devastating Costume
Who is Peter? He is you, doing the same thing every day; walking the same way to work; eating some store bought sushi, or maybe a burrito; ending the day in the same place he started it. He is you; he is us—feeling this ennui brought on by late capitalism. Every day is exactly the same. You go to work and some guy says “Work stuff. Work, work. Work stuff.” And then you go home and eat your burrito or whatever. This is life.
He imagines it being different and more exciting as he encounters first a flyer for “Dolphin Communication Testing,” then “Human Forcefield Experiment,” and the “Memory to Media”—each of which does sound a bit fascinating and leads us to see Peter’s reverie imagining what the experiment might look like. The point, though, is that he dreams of something different and novel to break him out of his jejune existence, and finds it, ultimately, in the Jejune Institute, which is advertised on yet another flyer.
This one, though, is a bit different as it features a “Have you seen this man?” drawing of a man who looks pretty much like the one Peter just saw post it. Further, it reads “please post in an inconspicuous place” in the left hand corner and “please post in a conspicuous place” in the right. It’s a weird flyer.
But it leads Peter to pull off the number, go home, and call it. There’s no answer, but they call him back and know his name. The woman on the phone invites him to an orientation session and tells him “a lot of numbers” in giving the address. When he says he doesn’t think he can make it on Saturday afternoon, she says, “For those dark horses with the spirit to look up and see, a recondite family awaits” and then hangs up.
Those words sounded to me like they were perhaps a line from a poem or something like that, so I searched them. It was at this point that I learned that the Jejune Institute was/is a real thing. Or, well, I suppose it depends what one means by “real” but the fact remains that things happened in San Francisco between 2008 and 2011 which have been described as part of an augmented reality game. There is a documentary called The Institute (2013) about it, which I proceeded to start watching upon learning of this—or perhaps it was a matter of being reminded, as I now feel like I read something a decade ago?
The number of things that occur in Dispatches from Elsewhere S1E1 that stem from this source material is somewhat stunning. For a moment it risked undermining my enjoyment of the series. So be warned. It might be better to watch this show without having seen that documentary or having looked too much into what occurred in reality. I’ll leave that to you. Personally, I stopped the documentary about halfway through and decided I’d finish it after seeing where Dispatches from Elsewhere goes over the course of the season.
Because, of course, there is no reason why the fictional narrative would have to continue to follow the course of events of the real life game (if that’s what it was). The door is open here to all kinds of potential paths forward, including those that might make things “real” in a deeper, more metaphysical sense.
You Belong with the Special Ones
Peter goes to the Jejune Institute and ends up in a room where he sits in a chair as Octavio talks to him on an old school television. There are indications that Octavio can see him back, as he asks Peter to nod if he agrees, for example, but one has to wonder whether these are based on presumptions about the responses of the person in the chair. Depending on your disposition, you might think that they must be.
Octavio tells Peter that he is special and has something in him. He suggests that we all have this deep desire to be told precisely such a thing, and I’d have to suggest he is right. None of us wants to think that they are just some ordinary person. We all want to think that we are destined for something greater, or at least fantasize about it.
Or maybe we don’t all do that. Maybe there are people in the world who are content with their quotidian existence because they like their job and love their family. Maybe there are people who are perfectly happy being ordinary.
But if so, Peter is not one of them. He tears up as Octavio speaks. He wants something more that work stuff and packaged sushi. And the wager that Dispatches from Elsewhere makes is that we do, too. The breaking of the fourth wall that occurs at the beginning and the end of episode serves to suck us in to this desire for something wonderful and strange. In a sense the show itself promises us what Octavio promises to Peter: an entry into a more meaningful life.
Of course it is silly to think that a TV show could itself do this, but it’s not clear how much sillier it is than what is being offered to Peter within the show. Is this a game, a hoax, a conspiracy? What if it’s real?
What happens next complicates things further, as when Peter follows instructions and opens a drawer to fill out a card, he sees that the next several cards contain messages for him. They tell him the Jejune Institute is not what it seems and that he needs to get out of there. The last message that tells him to run even refers to him by name.
How do we take this? Who put the cards there? Is this all a part of one thing, or are there indeed competing forces at play?
After Peter exits the building, he gets a call from Commander 14 of the Elsewhere Society, but is my mind playing tricks on me to think that this is the voice of Richard E. Grant? Is this a separate character from Octavio, or are both sides a part of the same plan? At this point I really don’t know, and IMDb doesn’t seem to be helping.
Peter meets Simone (Eve Lindley) and they do the next part together. It’s not entirely clear what they do, as a series of events is presented fairly quickly as Peter talks to his therapist (Tamika Simpkins), but the notion that they need to find Clara, the creator of the I.D.E.A., is clearly being placed in their heads.
What is the I.D.E.A.? We don’t (yet?) know, although we have been told about some other fairly out there Jejune products by this point. Perhaps we will never learn, as the phrase itself suggests that it is a big thing in a way that doesn’t necessarily have to be specified for the narrative to work. But I am curious what it is supposed to be an acronym for.
Regardless, all of this leads ultimately to Peter and Simone coming to a park in Philadelphia where they meet Fredwynn (André Benjamin) and Janice (Sally Field). They each danced with a sasquatch in order to get there, and presumably so did everyone else.
Teams of four form on the basis of the color of ping pong paddles, and we get a transmission from Commander 14 about “divine nonchalance” and how the Jejune Institute is the enemy as a purveyor of “false nonchalance.”
The whole thing reminds me a bit of the Church of the SubGenius and I find it fascinating. What is nonchalance? Well, I’d hope that you are familiar with the term. It is a state of calm, or coolness—a lack of anxiety and apprehension as one moves through the world. It is illustrated in the cartoon towards the end of S1E1.
Is this the goal? Because life, after all, is not a cartoon. What then?
Simone is threatened by a couple of men as she walks home. She ends up macing them. Think of her as you—as a woman.