If you went missing, would anyone look for you?
The question strikes Dory, a directionless twenty-something Brooklynite, as she finds a poster announcing that a girl she barely knew in college has gone missing. It’s what Dory tells her friends to justify dragging them into her quest to find Chantal. The gnawing anxiety the question elicits motivates her somewhat, but what drives Dory to search for Chantal is another question:
If you had the chance to be the hero in a mystery story, would you take it?
The show is Search Party, which aired its first two seasons on TBS back in 2016 and 2017, and was seemingly in limbo until HBOMax purchased the show. The first two seasons are now available on the streaming platform, along with the recently released third season (and a fourth coming soon).
Alia Shawkat plays Dory; a role she excels in. Like many young people today (myself included), Dory struggles to find a sense of direction in a world where traditional career paths and promises of financial security are melting before our eyes. Applying for a teaching job, the interviewer berates her for being unqualified: “You’re not equipped to teach tic-tac-toe”. Dory takes this in and responds: “Everybody can tell me what I can’t do, but nobody can tell me what I can do.”
It’s no wonder Dory jumps at the opportunity to take her life-story into her own hands. When she sees the poster advertising Chantal’s disappearance, she soon becomes obsessed — finding suspects and clues everywhere she turns. Living in a fantasy is much more appealing than the realities of the job market. As the show goes on, Dory becomes less like Nancy Drew, and more like a character in a Hitchcock film; her modus operandi becomes covering her tracks and hiding from her sins.
Dory lives with her boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds), a goofy yet spineless man who seems destined to be an intern until he dies. Their friends are Elliott (John Early), a narcissistic aspiring media figure, and Portia (Merideth Hagner) a bubbly actress. Rounding out the exceptional cast is Dory’s ex, Julian (Brandon Michael Hall), a journalist whose career frequently puts him into conflict with the rest of the characters.
With occasional exceptions, Dory & co appear as the epitome of hipsterdom: (Mostly) white, wealthy Brooklynites who go to rooftop parties and brunches. But underlying their selfishness is a profound sense of disconnect with the world — a world that constantly seems out to get them.
In the world of Search Party, the culture the characters move around in can seem like a cover for something darker underneath. For example, a chic, trendy clothing store reveals itself to be the meeting place of a fertility cult. You could call it Lynchian — but instead of small-town Americana, there’s something rotten underneath gentrified hipsterville (and not just the displacement of poor communities of color).
While Dory indulges in theories, the explanation is usually much simpler — everyone needs money; everyone wants power. Whether it’s pretending to have cancer to gain clout, or lying in order to pay back a debt, Search Party portrays the lengths its characters are willing to go in order to save face.
Dory’s not-so-altruistic search for Chantal occupies the first season, as she drags her friends away from their lives to help. The next season shifts to more of a psychological thriller, where the characters deal with the consequences of their actions. Season three becomes a courtroom drama and satire of the media circus, where the very question of millennial entitlement is put on trial.
The characters in Search Party live in beautiful apartments, despite barely having jobs (besides Portia, who is a working actor). Unlike many New York sitcoms, this is a feature, not a flaw. Dory, Drew, Elliott, and Portia are not only entitled; they are frequently rude, selfish, and egotistical. Each episode had me rethinking who was the worst; I’d have a tough choice between Elliot’s compulsive lying, Drew’s spinelessness, or Dory’s disregard for others. (Portia is almost always the best! Go Portia!)
I can imagine that seeing a group of wealthy (mostly) white millennials be narcissistic doesn’t seem the most appealing watch right now. But the brilliance of the show is how it grounds their actions in relatable fears and desires so that, despite their behavior, I continued to root for them.
Crucially, Search Party does not let its characters off the hook. Actions that traditional sitcoms consider cute and funny soon become deathly serious. In later seasons, Dory and her friends are haunted by their actions, and the show keeps the audience in anticipation of all the possible ways their comeuppance can occur.
From this description, the show probably sounds drudging and depressing — but it’s anything but. Search Party is simultaneously dark and breezy, thanks to the brilliantly scripted episodes which keep the plot moving while allowing plenty of room for humor. The show is filled with hilarious lines and recurring jokes (my favorite being a judge who is constantly snacking), and a who’s who of the NYC comedy scene (Griffin Newman, Chelsea Peretti, Patti Harrison, Connor Ratliff, Chloe Fineman, and Connor O’Malley, to name a few).
Each season is filled with twists and new story threads, with an impressive array of characters and plot elements that eventually come back to haunt the characters; some you anxiously anticipate, others that totally surprise you.
What makes the show great is how it taps into generational angst. Most millennials came into the workforce just before or after the 2008 recession (and right before this current one). Prosperity, except for a select few, is nonexistent; the planet is fast becoming unlivable; our government is in the hands of racist boomers. Given this, wouldn’t you too go searching for Chantal?
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Cole Sansom is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based out of Philadelphia