When I tried to describe Dispatches from Elsewhere to someone, I found that it defied categorization. It was part mystery, part drama, part scavenger hunt, part comedy, part human, part magical realism, part moving… and very much about identity and community.
This is one of the few times I am actively curious and wish other people would reach out and tell me how they would describe a show, how they felt about it. What was the journey like in watching Dispatches? I use the word “journey” because watching it felt like taking one — one that starts slowly, lacking in sure steps, because we don’t know quite what we’re getting into, whether or not we like it or whether or not it makes any sense.
What were your thoughts, feelings and impressions?
What stays with you: Identity is not a straight line
Plot points don’t stick with me too often, while well-drawn or evocative characters get under my skin and stay there. In Dispatches, four very different people are pushed together, and despite the plot being unclear, the identity struggles of each of the four become clear quickly.
Our introduction to this world is the meek Peter (Jason Segel, also the creator of the show), whom one could argue never had much of a personality or identity at all, but in the course of the show, begins to discover it. He is the least interesting of the characters but seems to represent a bigger theme: keeping the mystery going, a sense of wonder (both at what the characters are chasing and discovering, but more so, what he experiences as his identity awakens).
Peter meets Simone (Eve Lindley), a trans woman, who has taken the steps in her life to be who she truly is, but despite this courageous journey, the path to finding identity, acceptance and love is much more complex than just being who you are. That is step one, which Simone has mastered, solving the core ‘identity crisis’, but the deeply human challenges of trust and vulnerability appear to be even harder for her to overcome.
This pair meets Janice (Sally Field) and Fredwynn (Andre Benjamin) as the plot thickens, and the foursome embarks on some sort of mystery-driven game/scavenger hunt to find a woman called “Clara”. Janice’s situation reflects how a lifetime of compromises and choices lead you to an eroded version of yourself, and even though you don’t regret those compromises, you don’t realize how much of the original you you lost along the way – nor in fact how much of yourself you’re able to reclaim if you embrace the change and silence the fear.
Fredwynn, Janice’s unlikely game partner, is a mad genius, paranoid, and always on the edge of something either brilliant or insane – possibly both. While all of the characters are genuine, my heart breaks for Fredwynn, who, despite his intelligence and wealth, seems the worst equipped of the group to cope with his own fractured identity and how part of who he is always drives people away. (If you can’t tell, I loved all these characters, but loved Fredwynn the most.)
Until the very end it’s unclear quite what’s going on with the Clara mystery, and this is unimportant and immaterial compared to watching how the characters emerge, take chances and evolve. The Clara mystery, too, is enrobed in a story of someone who lost their identity/self, and to atone, wants to make sure that others find or reconnect with their own true selves. Dispatches shows us in a fanciful way that it’s never too late to discover or rediscover ourselves, and that often the best – or only – way to do this is through our connections to others – a community. (Which is also a driving theme in the late, great show actually called Community… which, like Dispatches, was wildly experimental, and necessary viewing.)