What we're watching: 'Dispatches from Elsewhere'

Jason Segel as Peter, Eve Lindley as Simone, Sally Field as Janice, Andre Benjamin as Fredwynn - Dispatches from Elsewhere

Tonight AMC will air the season finale of its original series Dispatches from Elsewhere and Buyer’s Guide Editor Kris Naudus explains that it’s about more than just an alternate reality game and the quirky people who are playing it. Senior Editor Dan Cooper highlights a property show that breaks from the usual formula by using virtual reality headsets.

Dispatches from Elsewhere

This a story about why people game.

A man in a hoodie and sunglasses posts a flyer on a pole asking if you’ve seen “this man.” It has the hoodie man’s picture on it. He sees you, and he runs away. Do you keep walking, or do you call the number on the flyer? That’s the question at the heart of AMC’s new series, Dispatches From Elsewhere, starring Jason Segel as Peter. Peter does in fact, pull a tab off the flyer, and soon finds himself deeply embroiled in an alternate reality game through the streets of Philadelphia. 

An alternate reality game (ARG) takes game elements like puzzles and mysteries and places them into the real world for its players to work through and solve. These can manifest through all sorts of media, from new media like websites and apps to old media like newspapers and magazines. You might have heard of the more famous ones from the last decade like ‘The Beast’ and ‘I Love Bees.’ Escape rooms are similar to ARGs in a lot of ways. Or maybe you saw the film Dispatches from Elsewhere is based on, a documentary called The Institute about a real ARG that took place in San Francisco back in 2008.

As someone who plays a lot of games — electronic, board and even some tabletop roleplaying — there’s so much I recognize in the show. It’s fair to say that an ARG is basically a video game in the real world, since it shares the same immersive nature and sense of wonder. Sure, fighting monsters and casting spells is fun escapist fantasy, but there’s also magic in opening up a drawer and discovering someone’s teenage diary, or pictures of people long dead. I used to spend summers at my grandmother’s house and, when things got boring, I’d dig through random drawers and cabinets, finding things like my aunt’s junior high school report card. The closest I ever got to that feeling since was through video games, digging through bins and boxes in the Zero Escape series, or clambering over rooftops in various Assassin’s Creed titles. It’s part of why I love video games.

Wouldn’t it be nice to capture that feeling in the real world, though? I’ve tried to travel more and visit more places I’ve never been here in New York City (before quarantine, of course), and I even took up birding as a sort of real-life Pokémon quest. But poking around other people’s houses without permission is rude, while exploring an abandoned warehouse can be both dangerous and illegal. And none of these have a firm narrative to drive you forward.

That’s what makes an ARG so attractive, in that it takes all these appealing game elements and injects them into your real life. Over the course of the first season, we watched the four protagonists visit offices, climb on rooftops and yes, visit “abandoned” warehouses as they’ve gotten caught up in an overarching narrative of the Jejune Institute versus the Elsewhere Society. There’s some modern tech in there, like VR and internet searching, but also decidedly old fashioned research like perusing microfiche at the library. And of course, the team must exhibit teamwork to solve the mystery.

Andre Benjamin as Fredwynn

In fact, it’s the learning to cooperate as a group that presents the greatest challenge to our protagonists, because they’re so different in temperament and experience. Here I see echoes of my own gaming life, because each of the team members represents a type of player. Anyone who’s played a tabletop RPG like Dungeons & Dragons knows them well. Simone, portrayed by Eve Lindley, is just looking for something to do. Andre Benjamin’s Fredwynn is the munchkin, the guy whose job it is to overthink everything and strip down the game beyond recognition because he just wants to win. (As you can imagine, he’s not very fun to play with.) Janice, played by Sally Field, is just happy to be included. And Peter… well, he’s the guy who doesn’t have a lot going on in real life so he ends up getting overinvested in the game, hoping it will add some meaning to his existence or make him a more interesting person. He wants the game to go on forever, even when everyone else says it’s time to go home.

It’s an eclectic mix of personalities, which is great for solving real-life challenges but less productive in a game where the game master is trying to keep everyone going in the same direction. Janice can be too passive, requiring constant prodding to get her to engage with the mysteries and obstacles set in front of her. Fredwynn is just the opposite: He’s convinced it’s all part of a deeper conspiracy and has no qualms about completely derailing the fun for everyone else. As the show later reveals, this is an absolute nightmare for the game’s architect, who needs to keep the game running but also get the errant players back on track.

Though I’m more of a Janice now, I used to be a Peter. I used to think about games a lot. I would draw pictures of my RPG characters and write long backstories and just talk about the campaign with my friends even when we weren’t playing. Even though I’m more casual about my gaming now, Dispatches from Elsewhere is so appealing because it speaks to me directly. And that’s not just a metaphor, it’s quite literal at times: Corporate boogeyman Octavio breaks the fourth wall on a regular basis to address the audience directly.

In fact, what if this isn’t just some ordinary TV show? Was I supposed to check the website for a secret code? Was there some kind of cypher hidden in the wallpaper? Is there a phone number I can call? Maybe, like Peter, I don’t really want the show to end because I’ve just been enjoying it so much. Even if you don’t go looking for some deeper meaning in the program, it works as a character study and a rumination on what kind of people play games. And if that’s not good enough for you, well, I guess it’s time to pull a tab off a mysterious flyer the next time you’re allowed outside.

— Kris Naudus, Buyer’s Guide Editor

Your Home Made Perfect

A CGI-heavy property show is appointment viewing

Your Home Made Perfect is a British home remodeling show in which people, often a married couple, struggle with a knotty architectural problem. Two architects go in, examine the issue for themselves and then have four months (or so) to come up with a solution. The twist, is that rather than showing off their designs on paper, or on video, they do so… in VR. Yes, that was “tech angle” enough that I could justify writing about my favorite property show on Engadget.

The two architects are Laura-Jane Clark and Robert Jamison, who go on a bad design tour of the UK’s worst homes. Oftentimes you’re watching, slack-jawed, at the state of some of these houses, which are often badly extended by the previous owners. Often, in an attempt to improve resale value, zealous home builders will add on bedrooms so small prison cells blush in envy. The result is a knotty maze of inflexible design that nobody should be forced to live in. 

After a few months, the couple (it’s almost always a married couple) are invited to the studio in Brixton to see the architectural pitches. Clark’s work is often focused on making spaces seem bigger and airier than they were before, with quirky additions like secret doors. Jamison’s, on the other hand, hews toward the operatic, offering radical and dramatic changes to how people live. And bench seats, because all of his designs have to look a little bit like a waiting room. 

When they’ve arrived, the owners are coaxed into an empty room and handed a Gear VR to wear. Then, the architects will, in turn, take them on a tour of their original house, explain the numerous problems with it, and then show them their inspiring design. 

Of course, two people looking at VR headsets, slack-jawed (we all get VR mouth the first time we wear one) isn’t very televisual. So the show then re-films the architect and owners on a green-screen studio, with the three pretending to be “inside” the virtual reality demo. And it’s actually a pretty CGI-heavy show, especially from a genre that rarely ever goes in for VFX.

Acting against a green screen is hard even for professionals, and is often a challenge for the contestants. You can see how well (or not) they did depending on how much of their facial reactions we can see in this sequence. I imagine that, for those who struggled with the acting, they just cut in the sound from the first VR demo and use lots of back-facing shots.

Unintentional comedy aside, it’s probably the first time that VR has been used as a gimmick in a non-techy TV show that actually works. Of course it’s natural that people would find it easier to understand architectural changes if they can see a working render of their home. And it’s also inspiring and empowering if you, like me, are seeing your own home remodel drag on for years.

Producer Joff Wilson explained to Broadcast that Your Home Made Perfect’s unique twist is that, unlike most property shows, it has multiple money shots.  “Viewers flock to that last 15 minutes, and for good reason -- it’s joyful,” he told the industry magazine last year, “it’s flooded with tips, inspiration and uplifting sync.” But in this show, you get not one, but three shots at a finished home -- two virtually, and one real. 

Peeking inside people’s homes before, during and after their grand rebuilds can be an eye-opening experience. Especially when you play spot the difference between the sparkling VR renders and the finished build as reality, budgets, and taste get in the way. It’s always fun trying to spot signs of delight, and despair, in the architect’s faces as they see their work made.

Your Home Made Perfect is one of a handful of shows that I’ll take time out of my day to watch live. And, most importantly, it’s offering me inspiring tips on how I can avoid the mistakes that other would-be renovators did. Hopefully, if my place turns out okay, we can give some of the credit to the folks from the show. I’ll just need to brush up on my VR skills first.

— Dan Cooper, Senior Editor