All Praise the Return of Jason Segel

If I told you there was a 10-year period when Jason Segel was the most purely likable on-screen presence working, how could you possibly argue? Whether it was television (as easily the best part of How I Met Your Mother) or film (leading Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I Love You, Man), the towering (6’4”) former basketball player was never out of our consciousness for too long. Then 2015 hit, and Segel disappeared; bro hearts everywhere (my own included) broke. But now, a few one-off roles in small movies and five years later, and his return has arrived in Dispatches From Elsewhere, a series marking new ground for the 40-year-old star.

Elsewhere isn’t anything like the Segel we’ve seen before—instead of the confident, fun-loving characters he brought to The Muppets or How I Met Your Mother, he’s the opposite: a droning, stuck-in-a-rut data engineer working at a Spotify-esque corporation. That’s not to say we haven’t seen sad Segel before; some of his greatest moments in Forgetting Sarah Marshall explored his character getting over what was a rather devastating break-up.

But when Sarah Marshall played Segel’s sorrow in a OK, time to get over it kind of way, Elsewhere finds Segel more alone. There’s no way for him to simply jump to action and snap out of it; his character needs the outlandish events of the series (an elaborate alternate reality scavenger hunt actually based on a true story) to help him feel anything for the first time in a while. At first, it seems like a weird choice for Segel—this character feels more like Will Ferrell’s melancholy turn in the underrated Stranger Than Fiction than anything else.

But weird isn’t necessarily bad. There’s something affecting about seeing a performer we know we love at his happiest stuck in something of a depressive mode on screen. It’s the same feeling when Jim Carrey slips into Eternal Sunshine mode, or Bill Murray puts on his Lost in Translation hat; part of you wants to reach out and pull them back to being their normal selves, because you can feel that something just isn’t right. But that’s not life, and neither is someone at their most jovial all the time.

“Part of you wants to reach out and pull them back to being their normal selves, because you can feel that something just isn’t right.”

Segel’s shown hints of wanting to branch out before. His last major role before Elsewhere was in 2015’s The End of the Tour, where he played writer David Foster Wallace opposite Jesse Eisenberg’s Rolling Stone journalist. Playing Foster Wallace in and of itself marks a departure; while the event isn’t depicted in the film, he struggled with intense bouts of depression and eventually committed suicide in 2008. Segel’s turn echoes real conversations from the writer’s Infinity Jest book tour, which saw him explore the complexities of life, rumors, drug addiction and various states of mental wellbeing throughout the course of the film.

He took this task incredibly seriously, transforming himself for the role, immensely researching, and earning the best reviews of his career as a result. As good as he was—and really, he was quite good—the guy people grew to love in Sarah Marshall or I Love You, Man wasn’t in there. This was a different kind of project shooting for an entirely different endgame. It became abundantly clear that sticking to what worked wasn’t something Segel was interested in anymore.

Like some of his comedy contemporaries of the mid-late 2010s (Bill Hader runs the show on Barry and Donald Glover does the same with Atlanta), Segel has a hand in just about everything on Dispatches From Elsewhere, writing and directing along with starring. But while those other shows also play with the ideas of tone and genre, they maintain their status as half-hour comedies. In Elsewhere, Segel opts for the hour-long serial format. That’s not to say the show doesn’t have its funny moments, but between using his stature to pull together a cast of impressive veterans and talented newcomers, and going with a different structure, it’s clear that the aim was to try something new.

“Sticking to what worked wasn’t something Segel was interested in anymore.”

Whether you’re down with the idea of a less-than-gregarious Segel or not, the bottom line that matters most here isn’t really who he’s playing or how he’s playing them. The important thing is that Segel is back on our screens in a big way, doing exactly the type of project that he wants to be doing right now—we know that because, well, he’s the one making it.

His character isn’t the jovial guy with positive energy exuding from him like crazy. We know he can do that. He knows he can do that. He wants to try something new, and that’s part of what makes Dispatches From Elsewhere as enjoyable to watch as it is. After years of pleasing everyone else, doesn’t he deserve a little time to please himself?

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