Jason Segel acknowledges Philadelphia wasn’t originally in the script of AMC’s surreal Dispatches From Elsewhere, the series he created, writes, stars in, and directs. But once they settled on Philly, the production went all-in on showing off its chosen city, from Rittenhouse Square to the Magic Gardens, from Fishtown to the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“It’s one of the most art-laden cities that I’ve ever been to," Segel said, "and it felt like the exact metaphor of our show, that beauty is all around you, down every alleyway, but you walk by it every day.”
Filmed from June to November, Dispatches joins past scripted dramas filmed in Philadelphia, including NBC’s Do No Harm (2013) and CBS’s Hack (2002-04), along with Apple TV+ thriller Servant, which is now filming its second season in and around Philly.
But the plot of Dispatches (airing 10 p.m. Sunday before settling into its regular 10 p.m. Monday time slot ) defies expected TV conventions. Segel stars as one member of a quartet who get caught up in a journey of self-exploration, a real-world adventure that may be a game or possibly something more.
“I have to say, honestly, it was a tough show to describe,” says executive producer Mark Friedman (Wayward Pines). “But that’s kind of what I like about it, right?”
Segel’s nebbish Peter is joined by insecure Philadelphia Art Museum docent Simone (Eve Lindley, who describes the series as “an inverted version of The Wizard of Oz”), lonely-on-her-own grandmother Janice (Sally Field), and obsessed-with-solving-puzzles Fredwynn (André Benjamin). The four frequently meet at a diner, dissecting the meaning of their experiences with rival organizations the Jejune Institute and the Elsewhere Society.
Segel says after his starring role on the long-running CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, he had a blank canvas ahead of him, which he found daunting.
“That was a really scary and interesting feeling I hadn't encountered in a long time, not knowing what to do next; 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,” Segel says.
Segel, who previously wrote the feature films Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) and The Muppets (2011), takes an approach with Dispatches that proves unusual even in the Peak TV era when many are experimenting with style and format. Episodes often begin with Jejune Institute founder Octavio Coleman Esq. (Richard E. Grant) directly addressing viewers. Some segments are animated.
“We’re inundated with so much television that it is very easy to zone out when you’re watching something,” Segel says. “I tried to use unconventional storytelling to force you to pay attention. … When you’re thrust into a situation you haven’t seen before, your brain activates a little bit and you might be receptive to the theme that we’re trying to communicate.”
And then there’s the sweet, tentative budding love story between Peter and Simone, who is trans and fears rejection.
“I read [the script] and I was so moved by the fact that it was one of the best depictions of a trans character that I had ever read,” says Lindley, who is trans. “I hadn’t really seen a trans woman be portrayed as a love interest and lovable, and a full, well-rounded character.”
Segel says he began coming up with the Peter-Simone love story by creating four characters who each suffer a version of isolation and then slowly bringing them together.
“And at that point, I know how to write a love story; it’s something I’m good at. And I don’t plan too much ahead, so as I was writing, our two characters started to fall in love,” he said. “That’s sort of my writing style. It’s very improv-y. I don’t go in with a firm plan, which is why it takes me a long time to write.”
Field says the characters have “a lot of vacancy” in their lives. Although she doesn’t see herself getting involved in such a real-life adventure with a random assortment of strangers, she can relate to the show’s theme.
“Hopefully in life, we’re all sort of taking these journeys without knowing that we are,” she says. “Not quite as fanciful as this is, because this is very fanciful, but certainly that’s why I wanted to do the show. It’s this treasure hunt they get caught up in and it becomes about their whole lives and they find out who they are within that.”
Compared to her last major TV role, matriarch Nora on the ABC’s Brothers and Sisters (2006-11), Field says Janice is a very different character in a series that had the actors frequently asking, “Huh? What? Wait a minute, wait a minute, let’s get this straight. Where are we? What are we doing? What are we finding out? When did we last know that?”
“This is not a normal piece under any circumstances,” she says. “The whole story was so unusual in a lot of ways.”
While telling this story that mixes magical realism with the threat of illuminati datamining, the show’s cast members say they enjoyed exploring Philadelphia.
Lindley loved the chance to put her own stamp on running up the steps of the Art Museum.
“That was very cool and very iconic and really fun for them to let a woman do it and sort of inject some flounce into that masculine tableau,” she says, noting Dispatches also filmed inside the museum on a Monday when the building is usually closed to the public. “It was very funny because you have a bunch of crew members working around priceless art. And then you have all these security and docent people watching and they’re just like, ‘Please don’t get too close to the Monet!’ ”
Benjamin, who’d previously only been in and out of Philadelphia briefly when touring as Andre 3000 as part of the hip-hop duo Outkast, walked all over the city playing a flute and reading scripts in parks where he’d later film scenes. He describes Dispatches as a “slippery ride” that traverses multiple genres — drama, tragedy, love story, sci-fi.
“As soon as you think you know it, it's like, it's not the end. That's not the bottom and we dig as a crew,” he says. “We dig, dig, dig and it always goes further.”