Film & TV

Searching for Your Summer Stream Binge? Search Party Is Your Best Bet

Alia Shawkat in Search Party
Alia Shawkat in Search Party Photo by Jon Pack/Warner Media
click to enlarge Alia Shawkat in Search Party - PHOTO BY JON PACK/WARNER MEDIA
Alia Shawkat in Search Party
Photo by Jon Pack/Warner Media
Back in 2016, TBS quietly dropped a whole season of a little television series called Search Party, a marvelous dark comedy created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter. That first season alone offered a masterpiece of television, following Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat) through her selfish journey to find a missing college acquaintance named Chantal. Between Dory, her friends Elliott Goss (John Early) and Portia Davenport (Meredith Hagner), and her boyfriend Drew Gardner (John Reynolds), the show distinctly showcased what awful people millennials can be, in a deeply funny and unique way.

But the show was more than a comedy. It was a relatable exploration of the aimlessness and anxiety that comes with your twenties, and it was the best neo-noir work to hit the small screen in ages. The second season expanded upon on the premise to great effect by diving deeper into the psyches of its broken protagonists. The show navigated the crimes and misdemeanors happening on screen while simultaneously skewering the entitled white kids whose purpose in society seems unsure at best and actively harmful at worst.

Each of its two ten-episode seasons had its own fully formed narrative arc, showing that its shallow figures were more than met the eye. In a single season, it brings the viewer the same joy as something like Otto Preminger's Laura, a mysterious noir that satirizes upper-class frivolity. In the next, it offers the thrills of Alfred Hitchcock's tales of murder (and the show pays homage to him often). As a friend joked, "This show is more stressful than Uncut Gems." And while the comparison may be silly, it's more than apt: a perfect balance of tragedy and comedy, anxiety and laughter.

Nearly three full years after the second season of this niche show premiered on TBS, its move to HBO Max offers audiences a chance to not only catch up with its past episodes but to finally experience a third season of Dory and her friends — with a fourth already ordered to come.

[Spoilers for the series as a whole to come. Note: Going in blind is well worth the experience!]

"I guess you could say I mishandled my ambition," Dory says early on in the latest season of Search Party, and it's a perfect summation of how she has naturally developed from a seemingly naive, wandering soul to the sociopath behavior she embraces as she battles the law. With the death of her lover and mysterious private investigator at the end of season one and Dory's arrest for his murder at the end of season two, it's natural to wonder how the series would pivot from the investigative mystery and crime show that it was into the realm of courtroom drama.

The good news is that Search Party is still as effective a comedy as it has ever been, leaning in to its screwball tendencies as much as its satirical elements. Placing these absurd characters into a courtroom drama only enhances the joy of watching something as high stakes as having someone you're invested in being caught for and accused of first-degree murder (and guilty of another unspoken crime from the second-season finale). It's here where we get season three's shining star: the scene-stealing lawyer Cassidy.
click to enlarge John Reynolds, Alia Shawkat, and Shalita Grant in Search Party - PHOTO BY JON PACK/WARNER MEDIA
John Reynolds, Alia Shawkat, and Shalita Grant in Search Party
Photo by Jon Pack/Warner Media
Shalita Grant's performance as the millennial lawyer literally handed Dory's defense case by her parents is one of the best bits of comic acting in ages. Everything from her body language to her line delivery is outstanding, and she's as funny while striking a pose or clicking her tongue in the courtroom as she is stating real observations about murderers as quips.

When Dory is spat on by strangers and Drew is handed a plate of food by the kind of fangirls who fawn over mass murderers, Cassidy notes, "Women get scrutinized. Men get pasta." When offering Dory a number of possible defenses, her quip, "Mental illness is a thing that everyone has or wishes they had," is as hilarious as it is on point.

Despite introducing several new faces and interesting narrative strands and trying to expand on the fractured personalities at its core, this season of Search Party feels a little uneven. Elliott, Portia, and Drew each have plenty of time to shine, but the series never fully knows what to do with any of the arcs, acting less like a contained season and more like a bridge between the first two and the upcoming fourth.

A moment like Portia pivoting to finding Jesus feels like a lazy retread of the time she fell into the hands of a theater cult. It especially pales in comparison to the hilariously dark glimpses into Elliott and Drew's pasts through minor revelatory scenes, from visiting old friends to burning off fingerprints. But the show has always been about Dory, and she remains thrilling to watch.

Shawkat's work here is more exciting than ever, a tightrope walk between being the hero and villain of her own story. She's as much a femme fatale as she is the embodiment of every noir antihero. The passion that once drove her to find an old friend has been repurposed into cold-blooded determination to get off scot-free, no matter who she has to take down with her. Her manipulation of others, from the crocodile tears she can summon for the camera to the mental gymnastics she can perform to convince others of her innocence, is nothing short of brilliant.

Though Dory's arc initially implies that her character will take the same route as Chicago's Roxie Hart — murder her lover, drag a hapless partner into the crime, and skyrocket into being the name on everybody's lips — the season is less interested in exploring the way perspective shifts on murderers in the media than it is in setting up pieces that will fall later. What is essential to the series is how it intensifies what's already the central tension: how these characters relate to themselves internally and how they project themselves into the public sphere.

In an era when audiences are trapped at home with nothing to do but watch the world fall apart, there's something comforting about Search Party and the frivolous problems of its ultimately awful characters. After all, it's probably the only show that can get away with having someone say, "They don't put innocent people in jail," while staring directly at someone who clumsily buried a body in a zebra suitcase and left their fingerprints all over it. In other words, it's no more ridiculous than the world we're living in.

Search Party. Starring Alia Shawkat, John Reynolds, John Early, and Meredith Hagner. Season three available now on HBO Max.
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Juan Antonio Barquin is a Miami-based writer who programs the queer film series Flaming Classics and serves as co-editor of Dim the House Lights. Barquin aspires to be Bridget Jones.