This is Firewater, the pseudonym of the person writing this review of the unique television show Dispatches from Elsewhere. For the purposes of this post, imagine that Firewater is You.
If you’ve watched this television event, that introductory paragraph made more sense to you. If you haven’t already watched it, strap in, because damned little of this is going to make sense to you. Be warned, I’m going to include spoilers here. There’s no way around it. If you plan to watch this show, let me tell you one thing before you stop reading: I’m glad I watched this series; I will be thinking about it for a long time to come.
Now. The review.
What the frack did I just watch? It was either a genius work of magical realism and surrealism, or it was a self-indulgent piece of navel-gazing as insubstantial as a fart in the wind. Or, perhaps it was a little bit of both and a lot of what lies between those two extremes.
It’s not every television show that encourages me to even look up the definitions to magical realism (or magic realism, if you prefer) and surrealism. As it turns out, there’s a lot of disagreement over most of the definitions.
Magical realism pertains primarily to the written word, and the author Gabriel García Marquez is the name that most frequently crops up on the internet when you key in a search. I’ve never read Marquez, but I have read Gene Wolfe and Terry Pratchett. Gene Wolfe wrote “magic realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish.” Terry Pratchett said magic realism “is like a polite way of saying you write fantasy.” No disrespect intended to Wolfe or Pratchett, but I used the term magical realism instead of fantasy because I believe there is a distinction. In magical realism, a commonality seems to be the acceptance—even the mundanity—of magic in the real world, rather than the existence of other worlds such as Middle Earth or Narnia. So, while some urban fantasies may fit that definition, certainly most of the heroic fantasy I have enjoyed does not.
If this series has an underlying theme, it may be this: You can find magic in the real world if you look for it. Or, alternately: We’re all more alike than we are different.
Surrealism, on the other hand, refers primarily to art. I guess it would be more accurate to write “art other than that of the written word” to silence my own internal critic, let alone any other artists out there. The surrealists published a couple of manifestos in the 1920s that I’m not going to bother to read. The Reader’s Digest version is that artists of the surrealist school were trying to express subconscious thought in visual form, which resulted in a lot of bizarre, dreamlike images such as that found in the art of Salvador Dali.
Art is a major component of this series, and much of it is dreamlike and surreal.
I don’t want you to think that you need to return to school for advanced degrees in art, literature or philosophy in order to enjoy Dispatches from Elsewhere. I just wanted to explain the various tracks my famously and easily distracted multi-tracked mind had to travel in order to write a review for the miniseries. For instance, I just now chose to go with the word “miniseries” to describe the show because I can’t see another season growing from this one. The story we’re told seems to be self-contained in the episodes already aired. Maybe “limited series” would better describe it. I don’t know. There I go, distracted again—
This series was created by and stars Jason Segal, whom most of us know from the long-running television series How I Met Your Mother. Segal was inspired by a 2013 documentary, The Institute, which was, in turn, about an alternate reality game called “The Jejune Institute” which took place over three years in and around San Francisco.
If you’re as hip as I am, you’re not sure what an alternate reality game (ARG) is. The most concise definition I can come up with is “live-action video game,” but that doesn’t really cover it. Wikipedia defines it as an interactive networked narrative that uses the real world as a platform and employs transmedia storytelling to deliver a story that may be altered by players’ ideas or actions. There, that’s now clear as mud. It seems to involve a lot of adults playing let’s-pretend, which I’m not against in theory.
As presented in the television miniseries, this sort of “game” comes across as a combination of a scavenger hunt, flash mob demonstration, performance art, and paranoid delusion. It immediately reminded me of several things written by the late Philip K. Dick, and of movies such as The Game, or The Matrix, which cause you to question the nature of reality. The immediate result is confusing, disorienting, and intriguing. I liked this about Dispatches from Elsewhere, and it kept me watching.
Without the proper actors, this show would have collapsed under the weight of its own high concept. Fortunately for the viewer, the program has a wonderful cast, actors who completely sell the “reality” behind the fantasy in this story.
There is the aforementioned Segal, who is Peter, a rather boring data worker struggling to find meaning in his existence. Sally Field is Janice Foster, an empty-nester whose husband is in a coma and who is trying to find a sense of identity now that “mother” and “wife” no longer readily apply. Eve Lindley is Simone, a trans woman seeking to escape her feelings of isolation. Andre Benjamin—known to some of us as Outkast’s Andre 3000—is a paranoid genius who is certain the truth is out there.
These four are our protagonists. Richard E. Grant is Octavio Coleman, Esq., the leader of the Jejune Institute. And he may or may not be the antagonist of the story. That changes frequently as other potential antagonists are introduced, as, eventually, is the possibility that there may be no antagonist at all.
Our protagonists meet through “the game.” Very quickly, their common goal becomes finding out more about a character named Clara Torres, who seems to be the glue holding the game’s narrative together. Each of our four main characters gets an entire episode dedicated to their backstory. This was beautifully done. We get to know our characters separately and then as a team. From there, the story quickly grows more complicated, and when it seems like we’ve solved the puzzle, it turns out that we may not have. We’re given an alternate solution, but then even that solution—
I’m not going to spoil everything for you. Instead, I’m going to draw a comparison between Dispatches from Elsewhere and a movie I watched some years ago. This was way back in 2003, and the movie was Identity, which at first seems to be a whodunnit in the classic Agatha Christie mold, especially And Then There Were None (whose original title is way too offensive to include here). I would almost recommend this movie, starring John Cusack, Ray Liotta and other actors I respect, because it kept my attention while the bodies dropped and the clues came at me, fast and furiously. I write “almost” because what the movie turned into changed it instantly from an A or even A+ Firewater’s Report Card grade to, at best, a D. If I watched the movie today, I wouldn’t even bother reviewing it.
What could have possibly happened to cause such a rapid decline in my review score? The movie didn’t play fair with the clues. Or, in fact, with the crime, the characters, anything. While I was on the edge of my seat trying the solve the mystery, it turned out that everything I had seen was the product of a psychotic mind. In other words, it was all just a dream. My least favorite kind of plot.
That’s not exactly what happens in Dispatches, but the cumulative effect is similar. Instead of being about the game, or the search for Clara, or most of the things we thought the story was about while it unfolded, it morphs into being about an actor named Jason Segal who ended up being a victim of his own success, and writing the script for this television event is somehow part of his salvation. Or something. I have to admit that once the story became too meta and most of what I had been trying to figure out over eight or nine episodes became pointless, I lost most of my interest in the series.
Most, but not all. What was left of the story, as meta as it was, was still well-told and visually interesting. The series was never not that. And while the ultimate destination lowered the grade I’m giving the project overall, it didn’t take it all the way down to what I consider to be un-reviewable levels.
I haven’t stopped thinking about Dispatches from Elsewhere since I watched the final episode around three weeks ago. This television miniseries based upon a documentary about an alternate reality game is an art project unto itself. I was initially ready to dismiss the entire thing as pointless, but found myself thinking about something from the program almost every day. Being in quarantine hasn’t helped, of course, even though I have plenty of things to otherwise occupy my time. Looked at as an example of video art, this was an impressive achievement. It stimulated conversation. It offered different perspectives into the nature of art and reality. It made me root for a romantic relationship between a man and a trans woman, with the absence of hangups about sexuality or any political agenda. It made me wonder what everyday magic I was overlooking in my own life.
Plus, it made me look up the definitions for magical realism and surrealism.
This series may not be for you. If linear storytelling with a clearcut beginning, middle, and ending, with no bullshit meta commentary, is the only acceptable form of televised entertainment for you, you should avoid this one.
Firewater’s Elegant-Squatch-is-all-about-the-Rebound Report Card: B-
Yes, the grade would have been higher if the narrative hadn’t taken its surprising, and a bit disappointing, turn. It has made me wonder if I shouldn’t give Identity another chance, though.