How many times have you said, “My life is like a TV show”?
How many times has that statement actually been true?
In reality, day-to-day life is pretty boring. There are high points and low points, but we tend to settle into routines and stick to well-worn paths. Veering off course is an exciting idea, but for most people, “an idea” is how it’ll stay, out of necessity, unwillingness to change, or some combination of the two.
In Search Party — a new comedy slash drama slash thriller from TBS — Dory (Alia Shawkat) is a wallflower who desperately wants to shake up her own paint-by-numbers life, if only she could find a reason to do it. So when a college acquaintance goes missing, Dory seizes on the chance to track her down, private eye style, like it’s a lifeline not just for the missing woman, the hilariously named Chantal Witherbottom, but for Dory herself. Soon, Dory and her self-involved friends are stumbling their way through New York City and down the convoluted rabbit hole of where Chantal might’ve gone.
Created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter, Search Party’s 10-episode first season is shot like an intimate indie movie and full of blissfully oblivious characters. If you’re a fan of their previous work, you’ll notice similarities to the indie film Fort Tilden, which Bliss and Rogers co-directed, and to Netflix’s TV prequel to Wet Hot American Summer, which Bliss and Showalter wrote on together.
Two episodes of Search Party will air each night this week, but TBS has already released the full season online and on demand, the better to marathon a show that deliberately ends every episode on a Nancy Drew–esque cliffhanger. (In fact, Nancy Drew titles even get a counterpoint in Search Party’s episode titles, like “The Woman Who Knew Too Much” or “The Mystery of the Golden Charm.”)
But it’s not the mystery that makes Search Party worth watching. In fact, as the hunt for Chantal wears on, it actually gets pretty boring. And in the process, the show has a lot of fun at the expense of its vain 20-something Brooklynites, who are trying to do good things for all the wrong reasons. By the end, the jokes have become so pointed that they end up drawing some welcome blood.
Search Party is much sharper as a satire of self-absorption than as a mystery
The second we meet the people surrounding Dory, it becomes a whole lot easier to understand why she’s trying so hard to escape her own life.
Her college boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds) is a nice guy who’s so pleased with his own goodness that he tends to be nice for the sake of being nice rather than actually caring about people. Her friends Portia (Meredith Hagner) and Elliott (John Early) are twin cyclones of self-absorption, priming every interaction they have to be more Instagram-friendly.
In Search Party’s first couple of episodes, they’re such caricatures of meticulously curated Brooklyn brunchers that watching Dory struggle to push back against them starts to make her less sympathetic. Just because she went to college with them doesn’t mean she has to put up with their adult bullshit, and it can be irritating to watch her bother with them at all.
But once Dory manages, in episode three, to drag them all out to a candlelight vigil in Chantal’s suburban hometown, the show’s satire takes a turn for the much more specific. “The Night of a Hundred Candles” — written by Christina Lee — is one of the show’s strongest hours, throwing Dory and her friends into a different context outside a Brooklyn bubble that’s been mocked to death and back.
Drew has to calm down Chantal’s unstable ex (a perfectly twitchy Griffin Newman) when he starts to accost the vigil guests but, being himself, makes it his first priority not to offend the guy. And Portia and Elliott start to differentiate themselves from one another. Elliott tries to squeeze sympathy for himself out of a vigil for a missing woman — bringing out Early’s most pointed, simpering line deliveries — while Portia gets stuck in a corner, smiling and nodding in frozen horror at the pervy guy Chantal used to nanny for.
Meanwhile, Dory’s obsession with Chantal’s disappearance burns on, pushing her to rifle through the bedroom of someone she only barely knew and even to confront Chantal’s grieving mother. Her narrowly focused behavior can be hard to watch; in these moments, Dory’s focus becomes just as insular and self-serving as that of her friends. But for Dory, they’re also the thrill of her lifetime.
Sure, she cares about Chantal, as much as you can truly care about anyone you only know well enough to say hi to in a hallway and not feel too weird about it. But what Dory’s really looking for — not to mention what Shawkat truly digs into playing — is a spark of excitement inside herself, something that could one day ignite into a flame.
From “The Night of a Hundred Candles” on, Search Party feels much more comfortable in its own skin — even as its characters realize that they want to crawl out of theirs and into something more satisfying than empty validation. (Though, okay, that might be a longer journey for Elliott, who gets caught in a particularly gross lie about his life and still manages to reap some benefits from the backlash.)
Unfortunately, while the act of investigating Chantal’s mysterious disappearance pushes Dory and her pals to new levels, the case itself is more of a vehicle for character development than an intriguing puzzle to solve.
Nothing about Search Party’s actual mystery is all that interesting — until the moment it ends
Dory’s search for Chantal is one boundary-pushing adventure (for Dory, at least) after another. She infiltrates a cordial cult (run by Parker Posey). She drinks shitty beer while cracking a case with a private investigator named Keith (Ron Livingston). She even visits Montreal (played by itself).
All the while, Dory gets more and more obsessed with the idea of solving Chantal’s disappearance. She tries in vain to enlist her friends in the search, stares at a wall filled with clues she’s collected along the way, and quits her job assisting a lonely rich woman (Christine Taylor) to devote every spare minute to the case.
It’s fun to watch Dory discover more about herself — but every time she mentions Chantal, it sucks the air right out of the scene. Not knowing anything about Chantal makes it hard to care about what happened to her, especially since Search Party doesn’t give us many details to cling to.
Thankfully, after sending Dory and friends on wild goose chases for several episodes, Search Party’s finale manages to bring it all together in a way that is genuinely surprising, revealing, and even chilling.
Without spoiling the ending — or the setup for a potential second season — Dory’s single-minded fixation on Chantal’s disappearance blows up in her face in spectacular fashion, making her confront all the vicarious living she did while Nancy Drewing her way around New York.
When Dory finally solves the case, the truth isn’t nearly as satisfying or dramatic as she hoped. But in withholding a sense of triumph and leaning into Dory’s disappointment, Search Party makes a much more compelling choice. It forces her — and us — to look at the way she treated this woman’s disappearance like her own personal adventure, sometimes at staggeringly high costs.
The season’s sharp end proves that TBS made the right decision in releasing all 10 episodes of Search Party at once; if anyone gets frustrated by the intermittent fluff, they can skip ahead to the answer. And once you do find out what happened to Chantal, it becomes clear that Search Party’s writers planned out exactly where they were going before they started — a good sign, should Search Party return for a second season.
While much of the show’s first season feel needlessly twisty and jerky, the way the mystery eventually comes together while allowing for sharp observations about the show’s characters speaks to Search Party being much more incisive — and worthy of a 10-hour marathon commitment — than it might appear at first glance.
All 10 episodes of Search Party’s first season are currently available on TBS.com or on demand.