Search Party is Nancy Drew for Millennials

Showing influences of both Veronica Mars and Girls, the new half-hour dark comedy Search Party brazenly aired in blocks of two episodes each night over the last week and gave viewers another one-season wonder. It can now be streamed from TBS online, in censored and explicit versions, as part of their streaming programming initiative. The 10 episodes are highly recommended for fans of dark comedy, character pieces, and suspense/thrillers. It even includes an on again/off again gay couple in its talented supporting cast.

Search Party focuses on Dory (Alia Shawkat, also serving as an executive producer), who finds herself at an aimless and unfulfilling point in her young life. Her three-year relationship with her bumbling boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds, Stranger Things) is not an ideal match as they seem more like dependable roommates rather than romantic lovers. Dory's job is in service of an entitled New York housewife — running errands and being an amateur therapist. She feels looked over in every respect, especially after being turned away from a mentoring job. Quite literally stepping into shit on the sidewalk of New York City, she spies a missing person poster with a picture of her college associate Chantal (Clare McNulty). After convening over brunch with her squad, the sweet Portia (Meredith Hagner) and narcissistic Elliott (John Early), Dory unwaveringly commits herself to finding Chantal. She is convinced that Chantal is in some kind of trouble. The question is raised: is Dory's interest in locating Chantal altruistic, or is she simply looking for some fulfilling purpose at this moment in her life? Why is Dory so suddenly obsessed with finding a girl she barely knows, and no one seemed particularly endeared towards? How far is Dory willing to go and how much is she willing to risk?

What follows is a Nancy Drew-style mystery with Dory gathering clues, coming across several potential suspects, and feeling as if she is successfully piecing together a mystery that may or may not have the scope she's convinced it does. Perhaps it is her future and purpose to be a detective and this adventure is where her life will find meaning. Along the way, Dory tests her relationship, friendships, and forges new unreliable allies and adversaries. Dory begins forming her own story about what might have happened to Chantal. Chantal's bloodied sweater is discovered in the nearby woods which points to Chantal being dead. Dory believes she's seen Chantal looking scared in a Chinese restaurant. She interrogates Chantal's ex-roommate, and so on. She even forms a vision board attempting to connect the dots. Thereafter Dory makes continuous risks to find her quarry leading to exciting sequences accompanied by beats of delicious dark comedy. The balance of tones, moving from ensemble comedy to psychological suspense, is skillful and makes Search Party a standout this fall television season. The pervading mood of Manhattan in the fall casts a lush spell over the complex narrative, and makes for captivating binge watching.

The cast is impressive. Besides the core four characters, there are fantastic supporting performances by favorites including Parker Posey, Ron Livingston, Rosie Perez, Christine Taylor, and Christine Ebersole. But, back to those core characters. Shawkat is a great center to the story and provides a delicately nuanced and fractured portrayal. Dory is a damaged person who believes she is doing something good, but is also capable of compromising her morality for her own self interest. Reynolds brings warmth and stability to his lovably awkward Drew. His is the most sympathetic of the characters, and also the most subtly humorous. Dory's hilariously shallow gay bestie Elliott is performed broadly by Early, who creates his own intriguing mess along the way as he is the consummate chronic liar. His boyfriend, Marc, is played by one of my favorite emerging comedians Jeffery Self, an always welcome presence for his particular brand of charm and wit. They have many sweet and sour moments together. The enormous standout and discovery of Search Party is Hagner as the charismatic actress Portia. As soon as the character gets her big breakout role on a police procedural, Portia is tested by the job and her mother (Ebersole) which gives Hagner some juicy material. She is also light, frothy, carefree, at times, and delivers some of the funniest one liners of the series. Despite Portia's privilege, she is somehow just so darn likable and is a genuinely supportive friend. I will be looking for Hagner in the future.

Search Party has an immensely satisfying conclusion that can serve as a final statement for all the craziness, but also presents something of a cliffhanger. The series could continue with the threads it is left with, but for now the series is intended as a one-off. Search Party is one of those series best entered with as few details as possible. It can be disorienting, presenting many twists, in addition to being a smart comedy. It attempts to be many things, and largely pulls it all off successfully. There are many striking set pieces with dynamic staging and varied milieus moving from a vigil, to a cult meeting, to a party, to a fundraiser, and the streets of New York. The series may best be taken as a kind of The Twilight Zone or O. Henry-type fable swirled with a good dose of post-modern comedy and just leave it there as a close-ended work, but I would most welcome seeing the continued adventures of Dory and company.

All 10 episodes of Search Party can be streamed from TBS online.

Gavin Rehfeldt's picture
on December 2, 2016

Native Chicagoan. Former comics slinger. Current comics reader. Bespectacled.