Search Party shifts genre once again in a funny and thrilling fourth season.
This review of Search Party Season 4 is spoiler-free.
Few shows are more difficult to categorize than Search Party, the fourth season of which premieres on HBO Max next Thursday. It’s a psychological thriller; an irreverent comedy; a courtroom drama; a scathing critique of mass media and contemporary society. But fundamentally, it’s a show about young people struggling to find meaning in a world that refuses to open the door for them and chastises them for sitting out in the hallway. And about that millennial ennui could lead to murder, and then another murder, and then going on trial for murder, etc.
Show-runners Sarah Violet-Bliss and Charles Rodgers have done a masterful job maintaining this delicate balance of genres and themes, creating a tone that’s equal parts comedy and drama. Coming into its fourth season, the show takes a turn that threatens to plunge the series into unbearable morbidity. Dory (Alia Shawkat), clear of her murder charges (but not her guilt), has been kidnapped by Chip (Cole Escola), a psychotic “megafan.” With no-one to turn to and no way to escape, Dory is left alone to dwell on her actions. It’s an unusual choice of genre, and one not known for its potential for levity.
To the writers’ credit, Search Party Season 4 is never anything less than captivating. Shawkat acts the hell out of Dory’s struggle as she finds new ways to cope with the double hell of her confinement and her guilt. The shift from terror to psychological horror can be tough to watch at times and feels somewhat born out of a desire to compel fans to find empathy and absolve a character the writers feel has become too unlikeable. Yet Search Party has always excelled at depicting characters who are abjectly terrible yet still endearing, and so the intense focus on Dory’s suffering sometimes feels miscalculated.
Thankfully, the season doesn’t lose sight of its ensemble. Drew (John Reynolds) is having the time of his life working in off-brand Disneyland with a princess girlfriend he could not be less interested in. Elliot (John Early) is a host of “Red State Blue State,” on Search Party’s Fox News stand-in, where he seems more than happy to abandon his viewpoints for a chance of success.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Search Party if there was just one subplot satirizing the state of contemporary media, and the second comes via Portia (Merideth Hagner), who auditions for a role in a film based on her and her friend’s lives. It’s a funny idea that’s consistent with the show’s hilariously cynical commentary, albeit a touch underdeveloped when compared to previous years.
That’s mostly due to the season’s structure, which pushes those subplots to the side as soon as Drew, Elliot, and Portia catch on to Dory’s disappearance. In a clever inversion of the first season’s premise, she becomes the subject of a search party. Watching Hagner, Early, and Reynolds search for their friend is a delight and proves that the show hasn’t lost any magic fourth time around
Dory’s stalker-turned-kidnapper, Chip, is the millennial Norman Bates; manipulative and extremely sensitive (and skilled in photoshop). He’s compelling, and fun to watch. But when the character leans into the more problematic elements of the archetype — i.e. the cross-dressing serial killer (a la Silence of the Lambs, a problematic fave if there ever was one) — it feels like a plot point born out of adherence to genre rather than any attempt to grapple with the complications of it.
On the plus side, the obligatory Chantal subplot that weighed down the previous two seasons is here compressed into a single episode. It’s a smart choice that prevents the main story from dragging and it turns out that Chantal’s shenanigans work much better as a continuous chunk rather than doled out by the scene over ten episodes. It’s another delightful addition to an already charming back half of the season that manages to raise questions about morality, obsession, and living with guilt, while never losing the touch of levity that was missing from the season’s early episodes.
It makes for an uneven season, which, this being Search Party, is still a highly entertaining one. Even at its forays into misery, the show is still a hilarious, zeitgeist thrill ride; a scathing critique of a culture that encourages young people to be vapid and superficial and then stereotypes and condemns them for being so. A world where you can be locked in a bunker against your will for months and someone will still find a way to blame your misfortune on your generation’s entitlement.