Search Party was a tricky little bait and switch. The millennial mystery comedy on TBS was released over Thanksgiving for your maximum binging enjoyment, and you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a Girls rip-off, with cute young twentysomethings gallivanting around Greenpoint.
In fact, I can tell you the exact moment I thought Search Party had potential, and that's when ads for it went up in Williamsburg. The ads were brilliant, parodying a variety of vintage Nancy Drew book covers, with Alia Shawkat lighting her way in the dark via her cell phone. There were a variety of "The Case of the Missing…" titles in that tortured Nancy Drew syntax, but the one that lingered was "The Case of the Missing Soul," a phrasing that, taken together, sounded a little more (forgive me) searching than a show simply about cute young people having sex.
Watch this and try to not get intrigued to see what comes next. We dare you.
I watched Search Party in a November flush. Young Dory (Alia Shawkat, with a goofy haircut and her wonderful face) lives an aimless life in Brooklyn working as a personal assistant to a rich lady (and getting praise for accomplishing her menial tasks). She has a live-in boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), who's boring, regressive, works in finance, and two hilarious friends who are hustling creatives: Portia, (Meredith Hagner), a blonde actress recently cast as a Latina rookie cop on a crime show, and Elliott (John Early), a blond do-gooder running a water bottle nonprofit in Africa (and who's the funniest guy in the room and carries himself as if he's made of money). The show kicks off when Dory sees a Missing flyer on a telephone pole, and, well, she knows her: Chantal Witherbottom, a self-published poet who shared one kind moment in passing with Dory in college. It isn't much.
When it comes to Search Party, however, you're in good hands: It was created by Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers along with The State alumnus Michael Showalter. Bliss and Rogers came out of NYU with last summer's Fort Tilden, a hilarious first film about two Brooklyn girls trying to go to the beach, which won the Grand Jury Award at SXSW in 2014.
It's the search that gives us meaning, right?
I'm not quite sure how to classify Bliss and Rogers' work. It's in the same milieu as Lena Dunham's work so far (young people who are probably neighbors in North Brooklyn with artistic goals and emotional pratfalls), and it's won the same awards (Grand Jury!). But Bliss and Rogers have this sophisticated and surprising handle on tone that makes their work stand out from the leading Millennial artiste's.
It's their eye, really—they write characters who can be selfish and appalling, but there's this understanding that some of that attitude comes from living in a ridiculous place (New York), and some of that is just desperate tap-dancing in order to convince yourself that you matter in a cruel world (New York). And while there's commentary and criticism in their work, it's also, ultimately, clear-eyed. That confidence plays out wonderfully in Search Party, which is as much a convincing mystery show as it is a contemporary comedy of manners. (There's a very good hashtag joke, for one: #iamchantal.)
Search Party is as much a convincing mystery show as it is a contemporary comedy of manners.
So here's the point in the essay where I am going to spoil the shit out of Search Party, and I recommend that you do avert your eyes. Bliss and Rogers are good at subverting expectations. With Fort Tilden, you think you're watching a dumb comedy about two dumb girls trying to get to the beach, but it's more as if you're watching a very smart comedy about two self-absorbed girls that, by the time they get to the beach, have a small realization that they've been messing up their lives. But they may not change.
The charge in Search Party comes from the fact that, as Dory plays private eye while searching for Chantal—and the show imitates her pleasure, shamelessly ending each episode on a Dan Brown-esque cliffhanger so you have to keep watching—Dory is finding herself and maybe, possibly, becoming the person she should be. The purpose she has in this search is the purpose that she's looking for, and it's beautiful when Shawkat finally lets out a gleeful smile (which comes after Dory and a sexy rumpled P.I. named Keith, played by Ron Livingston, steal the trash from a creepy cult compound).
And lesser artists would leave it there. It's the search that gives us meaning, right? But Bliss and Rogers have something more like truth on their minds, and in the final episode, they unravel the story with a brilliant run of writing. The search has taken Dory and her friends to an abandoned house outside of Montreal, and while Dory has probably found Chantal's hiding place, the girl isn't there yet. Dory is alone in a cavernous house. Her relationship with Drew is severed, Portia is out in the city drinking, and Elliott is on the porch talking to his novelty book editor (long story, but: a turn of events that is entirely too true). And in comes Keith, a P.I. and lover spurned, looking for Dory and looking for Chantal.
Dory runs and hides in fear, motioning to Elliott through the window that she needs help. He waves her off with an oh, you! laugh. Keith finds her, and they scuffle. She tases him. He hits his head on the counter. He awakes, blood on his head, and he attacks her. Just when it looks like it's lights out for Dory, in comes Drew with a candlestick. He hits Keith on the head and he falls off Dory, dead.
And it's at this exact point that Chantal appears. And it's fucking brilliant. Keith is rotting in a closet. Drew and Dory are shaken up. Elliott has just switched over to horror. Portia is oblivious. And Dory quizzes Chantal. There's no great story. No grand conspiracy! She basically ghosted her life due to a lovers' squabble. Two sentences hit like a punch. Dory asks: "What were you hiding from?" Chantal answers: "Honestly? Myself." She says those two words like they're an ancient koan, and in the context of her banal story, that's probably the case. But from Dory's perspective, they're Keith's death warrant.
There are so many conflicting emotions in that scene, as played by the actors, and as the audience relates to them. It's absolutely brilliant, and it's the point where Search Party takes off into some other realm, where it shows just how cruel the world can be in response to trying to have a purpose. Even worse, it resonates outside of the confines of Greenpoint.
We live in a time of unfettered access to technology and information, meaning that many people—no matter what level of ennui—have the opportunity to play detective
We live in a time of unfettered access to technology and information. This access means that many people—no matter what level of ennui—have the opportunity to play detective. The world is cruel and, more often than not, lacks a narrative. But despite that reality, we are uniquely empowered to find a story in every little hole, to impress narrative upon what may just be life. While Dory was, brilliantly, mostly confined to the visual story-friendly realms of hanging out with a cute P.I., these days, detectives are everywhere. Decoding Westworld theories on Reddit. Figuring out who is the truest detective, or what Matthew McConhaughey's mutterings meant on the superb first season of that show. Trying to figure out if the seemingly unsolvable cases in Serial and Making a Murderer can, in fact, be closed with the help of a mass audience without legal expertise.
But what may be harmless when it comes to a TV show can have disturbing implications in the real world. The imminent release of the Boston Marathon bombing film Patriots Day brings up a host of memories for this Boston native. One lingers: In early 2013, I can remember seeing posts on my Facebook feed about a missing young man from Brown University. A page had been created for him. People were searching. People were worried. People were hoping for the best.
When the attack occurred a month later, the missing man—Sunil Tripathi—was identified on an active Reddit thread "Find Boston Bombers" as a possible suspect. His family—sick with worry over the search—had to take down their Facebook page about the search for their son. They were getting hundreds of threatening messages. Twitter also propagated the misidentification of their son as one of the bombing's perpetrators. Thousands of people (#weareallDory) were suddenly playing detective, and the consequences meant untold emotional trauma for a grieving family.
A week later, they found the young man's body. He had committed suicide.