In 2008, Jeff Hull, an artist working in and around San Francisco, founded the Jejune Institute. In the course of three years, the Institute—an imaginary thing at the center of an elaborate alternate-reality game—inducted several thousand members. Players unravelled a plot concerning the imaginary founder of the Jejune Institute, its organized dissidents, and the whereabouts of a charmed young woman with the aura of a benevolent rebel princess. Spencer McCall’s 2013 documentary about the project, “The Institute,” suggests that it combined a Fluxus stunt, a freelance crowd-psychology experiment, a ludic self-help workshop, interactive promenade theatre, and some traditional hipster bullshit.

On AMC’s “Dispatches from Elsewhere,” the series creator, Jason Segel, turns the art piece into a distinctive fiction. In a version of Philadelphia, the Jejune Institute is a real thing, although the nature of what is real is a subject of some fun. Its universe is absurd but graced by wonderment, as if the central characters have joined a flash mob that may yet jostle them off to Oz. Segel has based “Dispatches from Elsewhere” on “The Institute” in somewhat the same sense that Charlie Kaufman and his brother based “Adaptation” on “The Orchid Thief.” Bigfoot has a recurring cameo, and his hair is perfect.

“Dispatches” recalls Kaufman’s work in its melancholic metaphysical gist, its vigorous metafictional form, its attention to loneliness, and its invention of far-fetched technologies rigged up from charming analog gizmos. (The “induction videos” that Hull created for the Jejune Institute, re-created here, share their deadpan manner and Betamax sensibility with the training films of LesterCorp, from “Being John Malkovich.”) In building its own voice, the show thieves profitably from several schools of self-conscious yarn-spinning as it toys with oblique approaches to straight stories, with a rigor that counters its bits of squishy whimsy.

Richard E. Grant is Octavio Coleman, the narrator and the founder of the Institute, who is something like an alluring cult leader or personal-development-seminar overlord. His business is “socio-reëngineering,” and the Institute describes itself as a “forum for experimental research techniques utilized to expand interpersonal trust.” Coleman introduces us to Peter, played by Segel, who is lonely and numb, living on packaged sushi, in a state of quiet desperation; his apartment, decorated in shades of waiting-room green, is host to a domestic life out of an Edward Hopper painting. “Squint your eyes and Peter is you,” Coleman says, in one of many open appeals to the empathetic imagination. “Dispatches” at first appears to want you to identify with its characters, which may enrich your sense of curiosity; but then it warps its own perspective by having this narrator, with his plush diction, undermine his reliability early on. Segel and his collaborators have a serious determination to play around.

When Peter sees a man taping a “Have you seen this man?” flyer to a lamppost, he realizes that the guy on the flyer is the same guy taping the flyer up; he flees. Peter calls the relevant phone number, and the Jejune Institute invites him in to receive touching promises of adventure and self-actualization. He swiftly discovers a found family of teammates for an arcane lark: Janice (Sally Field), a pleasant old lady with a bedridden husband; Fredwynn (André Benjamin), a STEM prodigy grown into an isolated retired rich guy; Simone (Eve Lindley), a sprightly young trans woman who is menaced by thugs on the street and nagged by feelings of displacement. (Coleman’s request to imagine oneself as Simone hits as pleasantly didactic.) Each of these people is on his or her own trip, and the series sometimes unfolds as a collection of linked character studies, or a cycle of prose poems. “Dispatches” advances in lyrical loops, circling each character’s psychology with animated bits and surrealistic riffs. The big picture of the elevated scavenger hunt is mostly a plot-generation machine. Its bright threads of silliness (a sequence in which, perhaps in a nod to “The Sopranos,” Peter and Simone receive instruction from a Big Mouth Billy Bass-like fish) lead to sincere vignettes (a scene of the introverted Peter summoning the nerve to express affection for Simone and getting stung by her emotional unavailability). I don’t dare guess what the vignettes add up to, other than a show so lyrical with dream logic that it’s intriguing even when it’s not strictly successful.

AMC has a soft spot for the vibes and devices of classic American postmodern fiction; “Lodge 49” put in two excellent seasons of homage to Thomas Pynchon, and now “Dispatches” is doing a John Barth thing, in the reflexivity and self-revision and exploratory parody of its storytelling. I started wondering if Segel, on some level, behind the scenes, is still in character as David Foster Wallace from “The End of the Tour.” Then I caught an obstructed view, on Fredwynn’s meaningfully curated bookshelf, of the spine of “Infinite Jest.”



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