Search Party Review
TBS’s programming, for the majority of the past 40 years, has been an unfocused amalgamation of two-camera sitcom reruns, loops of old, semi-memorable movies, and baseball games. It was only in 2004 that TBS officially rebranded itself as a primarily comedy-focused network, but besides the network’s flagship show Conan, quality original content has been lacking – most TBS originals have been short-lived sitcoms or continuations of canceled network shows. However, in the past year, TBS’s original programing has steadily improved due to clever single-camera comedies like Angie Tribeca and People of Earth, and their latest release, the dark mystery-comedy Search Party, may finally be the nuanced original content the channel so desperately needs.
Search Party, created by Sarah Violet-Bliss, Charles Rogers, and comedy-scene veteran Michael Showalter (of The State and Wet Hot American Summer) is cynical and wry, a show that aims to both amuse and prickle its audiences. Its premise is simple: When Dory (Alia Shawkat), an aimless millennial Brooklynite, discovers that her college acquaintance Chantal (Clare McNulty) has gone missing, she recruits her pliable boyfriend and narcissistic friends to track down the missing girl. As they unravel the mystery, the members of the group slowly begin to reveal their vanity, dishonesty, and selfishness. Search Party is a show rooted in detective television and noir film, but make no mistake, it is first and foremost a study of self-absorption.
Of course, it can be incredibly difficult to build a show around characters who are defined by their self-obsessions, and without its stupendous cast, Search Party may well have disgusted viewers before they finished the first episode. However, the members of the titular search party are portrayed perfectly by a cast that expertly balances poignancy with irony and self-deprecating humor. Shawkat plays the sympathetic Dory with an earnestness that makes her self-centeredness far from obvious until the final episodes of the season, and John Reynolds delivers an equally pity-and-disgust-inducing performance as Dory’s confrontation-averse boyfriend Drew.
While Dory and Drew’s plotlines reveal the most about the show’s central mystery, their friends and fellow search party members, Elliott (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner), are far more blatant embodiments of the show’s thematic focus on selfishness, and perhaps as a result are incredibly enjoyable to watch. Elliott is a chic, gay, and chronically manipulative socialite, constantly gaslighting his on-again, off-again boyfriend and scamming his way into the public spotlight. Elliott’s endearing deceit is perfectly offset by the bubbly vanity of his best friend and constant companion, Portia, an up-and-coming actress whose focus rarely wavers from some form of attention seeking, whether it be from her television audience or from her detached, cynical mother. The obnoxious narcissism of Elliott and Portia is surprisingly easy to root for, and it enhances rather than overshadows the subtle egomania of Dory and Drew.
Search Party is a mystery show driven by character, rather than by suspense or promising leads. In fact, the actual search for Chantal feels far from urgent; the only person who seems genuinely interested in finding her is Dory. The hunt for Chantal only goes on when the search party has something to gain from it: in one sequence, Elliott and Portia only agree to help Dory investigate a mysterious hipster-cult meeting in order to land some hot gossip; in countless other scenes, Drew joins in Dory’s clue-seeking only to avoid conflict, and even then with frequent protestations. Dory herself frequently uses Chantal’s plight as an excuse to spend more time with a charming, middle-aged P.I., Keith (Ron Livingston), who is also on Chantal’s trail. Chantal’s actual well-being seems to matter to no one in the search party at all, who each join in the investigation for their own selfish purposes. Dory’s motives may be the most selfish of all, as her chronically blunt ex-boyfriend Julian (Brandon Michael Hall) repeatedly points out. Dory is not looking to find Chantal out of genuine sympathy, but rather to bring some kind of purpose into her own life. The search is a means for each member of the search party, but their desired ends are simply their own selfish wishes.
At times, the egocentrism at the core of Search Party is exhausting to watch, even when balanced by the humor of Elliott and Portia’s antics. That being said, the show never stops being engaging, and viewing it never becomes a chore. Search Party’s dark themes make it a compelling piece of art, and often result in incredible examples of black comedy. The show marks a departure from TBS’s earlier attempts at original comedy, staying away from the bright-light, multi-camera sitcom format that doomed so many of TBS’s past outings. In contrast, Search Party is single-camera, and visually paints itself primarily in dull pastels, grays, and browns. This aesthetic choice may give weight to the show’s occasional moments of dreariness, but ultimately, it elevates the central messages of the plot. Search Party may feel bitter and pessimistic at times, but this only makes its humanizing moments more memorable and makes its wry comedic sensibility feel natural.
Much like it did with the uber-parodic Angie Tribeca and the fantastical People of Earth, TBS took a chance on the unapologetically thematic Search Party. This chance, however, was one worth taking, and resulted in complex, reflective programming that offers so much more than the banal, formulaic sitcoms that the channel has produced time and time again. Shows like Search Party prove that taking art and humor from stark, unsettling places may be risky, but when it pays off, it does so substantially.