Search Party has the dubious distinction of being a series that’s true colors don’t show right away. In fact, it really isn’t until the second season that the series shows its true ethos, primarily because it performs the impossible feat of turning the debut season’s idea on its head while still retaining its identity. What’s more, the show actually lacerates the culture it depicts, offering us characters that become increasingly more deplorable—and even criminal in their actions—yet also avoiding the pitfall of being cynical by being all-too nuanced and self-aware in its presentation and commentary. Not too shabby for a show that’s concept would seem out of place for the YA section at your local library.
From afar, one might mistake Search Party’s idea of having something of a gimmick to it, especially if judging the first season alone. (If you don’t want the ending of the first season to be ruined, then don’t read a single thing about the second!) Following a group of 20-something New Yorkers who bring it upon themselves to find a missing classmate would seem like a clear attempt at modernizing the Nancy Drew mystery series for the smartphone age. The advertising suggests this as well, with the bright colors, character renderings that are cheekily modeled off of traditional teen-mystery novels, and the throwback titles (promos for the first season referred to it as “The Curious Case of the Lost Soul”). Still, it doesn’t take too long to delve into Search Party and realize that the programmatic formatting is just a hook and that there is something far more intelligent going on.
Created by Michael Showalter, Sarah-Violet Bliss, and Charles Roger, the series definitely comes with a pedigree. While Showalter has been an active and recognizable voice in American comedy for over two decades now (he was a professor of Bliss and Roger’s at NYU), the other two seem to have added more to the show’s vision. One would only have to look at a previous project of theirs to ascertain this: the 2014 film Fort Tilden (which Bliss and Roger share writing and directing credits on).
Fort Tilden was a hilarious hipster sendup about a duo of over-privileged, post-collegiate white girls and their comedy-of-errors-sparked day trip to ascertain drugs and sex, which proved to be a critical success. Also, seeing that Fort Tilden practically felt like an episode of Broad City dipped in strychnine, perhaps it was inevitable that their brand of hipster lamentation would make its way to the small screen. Thankfully, this also gave them the means to construct a more complex narrative.
As stated before, Search Party is a show that is nothing if not deceptive. While, at first, the show’s aesthetic and values might seem to be aligned with the demographic of its characters (i.e., 23-30-year-old trust-fund New York City transplants)—what with its contemporary look, coffee-shop dialogues, and theme song supplied by electronic pop duo Purity Ring—Bliss and Roger also make jabs at how superficial they feel these characters are. In the first episode alone, when protagonist Dory (Alia Shawkat) alerts her boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds) and friends Elliot (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) that she’s become aware that an old college-mate of theirs has gone missing, the response she receives from the rest of the crew is less than enthusiastic. Turns out her compatriots barely remember her, and they hardly share any concern about her safety. Still, Dory is determined to find Chantal and becomes preoccupied with finding clues that lead to her whereabouts.
This might make one think that Dory would be the altruistic voice-of-reason for the gang, but once again, Search Party avoids such a predictable trajectory. Dory gets so caught up with trying to find Chantal that she lets her imagination get the best of her. Once she teams up with Private Detective Keith Powell, she finds their partnership exciting and begins an affair with him. But then, she discovers that Chantal’s parents did not hire him to locate their daughter.
In the finale of Season 1, Dory deduces that Chantal has become involved with a dangerous cult of which Keith works as an agent. So she goes to Montreal where Chantal has been hiding out. She and Drew confront Keith here, and the two end up killing him as they feel he was a threat. It’s an unexpectedly dark turn for the series to take—especially as it has the framework of a half-hour sitcom—but it comes to an even more shocking revelation.
Upon finally meeting with Chantal, we discover that the primary reason for why she dropped off the grid was a bad break-up; she was not involved with a cult nor in any grave danger. Sentence by sentence, Chantal’s breakdown makes it clear that Dory’s rousing detective case was heavily built on fantasy. And as for Keith…
Yeah, she just fucking murdered him.
It’s a conclusion that I doubt anyone could have seen coming, and Search Party jumps into its second season using this twist to really shake-up its framework. Dory, Drew, Elliot, and Portia decide to hide Keith’s body rather than contact the authorities before they make their way back to New York. The rest of the season involves the crew trying to stay one step ahead of the police and cover their tracks. So yes, in a way, the second season is an inverse of the first—with the gang being suspects rather than sleuths—but it still retains the pace and energy of its forbear.
What does become clearer is how amoral the four protagonists go about their lives, perhaps in light of just getting away with murder. Elliot, the token homosexual, had been written as an egotistical flamboyant who was often full of shit in his life stories (namely, lying about almost dying from cancer at a young age). But we see him even more prudish in the second season, especially as he’s received a book deal to write a memoir on his dishonest life.
Drew, having broken up with Dory in light of discovering that she cheated on him, finds himself more frustrated at work than ever—especially as he’s not likely to be getting a Shanghai venture that he’s been pining for, which leads him to commit some pretty horrible things with a co-worker. Even Portia, the bubbly blonde whose the closest thing the show has to an “endearing” character, finds herself breaking her rules when she confronts her mother and decries to disown her (a character we had seen give her tough love the previous season).
Of course, the most skillfully depicted transformation in the second season is that of Dory’s. While visibly on edge knowing that her actions caused Keith to die, the character is on one hand sympathetic. She’s tortured for sure, and she even admits the murder to at least one outsider (who doesn’t believe her). The filmmakers give us a nice dream sequence in the penultimate episode where we really get to see how visceral her guilt becomes. Still, she doesn’t really do anything redeemable in light of this—last season she was fixated on helping someone; here, she’s only concerned with herself. She is confronted by an ex-wife of Keith’s—and eventually the police—and she lies to them consistently about her knowledge regarding his disappearance/death.
At the end of the season, the gang discovers that a neighbor of Drew’s, Abby, has found out the truth about Keith when she heard them discussing it through the apartment’s paper-thin walls. Abby blackmails the group, threatening to give a tape-recorded admission from them to the police unless they give her $60 thousand.
Struggling to find the funds, Dory confronts Abby upon the Staten Island Ferry with a phone that holds evidence of a sexual-harassment scandal that a politician Abby’s been working for is behind. Abby takes it but berates Dory for once again putting someone else’s wellbeing before her own, calling her and her friends superficial and horrible people. Here, Dory’s frustrations and guilt seem to compound, and she pushes Dory overboard, assumedly killing her.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Search Party a direct descendent of Breaking Bad. Just as we saw Walter White change from a milquetoast family man to an irredeemable monster, Search Party has given us not one but four characters that seem to be going in a similarly damning directions. Also, like Breaking Bad, there’s plenty of hints in Search Party that the characters always had the propensity to commit heinous acts; it just takes the right amount of anger and spontaneity for them to really act on them.
The season closes with Dory getting arrested, so it’s anyone’s guess as to where next season will go (is it too much to think that she’ll share a cell with Piper Chapman?). But one thing is for certain: Search Party’s evisceration of millennial banality is only getting started.
Peter Foy is an avid reader and movie buff, constantly in need to engage his already massive pop-culture lexicon.