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Search Party was good in season 1. But the TBS comedy hit new heights in season 2.

The series asks, “What happens when millennials have to cover up a murder?” It’s darkly hilarious.

Search Party’s characters investigate a mystery.
Dory, Portia, and Drew have to deal with what they’ve done.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. This week, Todd VanDerWerff and Caroline Framke sat down to discuss the episode — well, episodes — of the week for December 17 through 23, “Frenzy” and “Psychosis,” the two-part second season finale of TBS’s Search Party.

Todd: I really didn't think Search Party, TBS's dark comedy that essentially imagines what would happen if the cast of Girls got wrapped up in a Hitchcock thriller, could possibly have a second season as good as its first. And even if the series pulled that off, I didn't see a way it could end with me rabidly anticipating season three.

But, as they say, here we are. Season two was just about perfect, balancing the group's tensions and guilt (over having covered up a killing) with the show's wilder, funnier moments. And it ended in a way that beautifully sets up a third season that will only exacerbate the schisms between the characters: Protagonist Dory (Alia Shawkat) goes to prison, after one of her friends seemingly rats her out.

The Girls comparison gets hauled out a lot around Search Party, so I don't want to indulge in it too much, but I think it's particularly instructive when you consider that that show only gradually revealed itself to be about a bunch of 20-something friendships falling apart.

In season two, Search Party got right to the good stuff almost from the word go. By the end, the show’s characters probably wish they'd never met each other, but have to pretend they're as chummy as ever.

Or maybe the Search Party characters have always disliked each other?

Caroline: I'd argue that the characters already wish they’d never met each other from the second this season opens, as everyone panics over the enormous question of what to do with a dead and bleeding corpse (classic) and slowly realizes that the only people they can ever talk to about what happened are each other. Dory, Drew (John Reynolds), Elliott (John Early), and Portia (Meredith Hagner) barely made sense as a friend group in Search Party’s first season; once the second starts, they're bonded to one another for life, despite having drifted about as far apart as they possibly could without losing sight of each other entirely.

But even though this season managed to surprise me — Drew's latent sociopathy! Elliott's manic rash! — its bigger picture was about what I expected. Four friends tried, and failed, to contain the truth. But as the credits rolled on the finale, with Dory being led away in handcuffs, I have way less of a sense of what might happen next — not least because Dory gets arrested immediately after maybe killing the group’s blackmailer April in a sudden burst of desperate rage (a moment Shawkat played beautifully).

So, uh, hey, Todd: Did Dory kill April in a sudden burst of desperate rage? I kept waiting for the show to cut back to Dory reeling from the possibility that just flashed through her mind — like her particularly low moment earlier in the season when she teetered on the edge of a roof — but it never did. What, to quote Oprah, is the truth?!

Search Party
On the other hand, everybody got to cuddle some cute kittens.

Todd: Wow, I never once thought that it maybe didn't happen. Committing another murder to cover up the first, possibly justifiable murder is such a trope of this genre that I'd been expecting such a thing all season. I also expected that Dory would be the one who finally had to commit that next murder.

Then again, if April shows up next season and reveals that Dory imagined the whole thing (or that she improbably survived Dory’s attempt to kill her), I won't be too mad. One of my favorite twists all season came in “Frenzy,” when Search Party revealed that April had a much more cheerful identical twin, so when Drew and Dory tried to search April's house to find the incriminating tape she had of them (because they were fighting loudly about committing murder in an apartment with thin walls, of course), they didn't realize that Elliott and Portia had been following the wrong person.

I’ve been thinking about how skillfully Search Party balances the more stereotypical characters of Portia and Elliott against the more grounded portrayals of Drew and Dory, and I'm trying to figure out why it succeeds when it probably shouldn't.

Some of it is pitch-perfect casting for all four of these roles, but I also think some of it is that Search Party has always portrayed Portia and Elliott as those goofy friends who always show up in "Can you believe this happened?!" stories, and then has underlined just how detrimental having them help you cover up a murder would be.

All of which brings me back to an element of season two that I wasn't quite as on board with: Julian's sexual harassment at the hands of Mary Ferguson (the great J. Smith-Cameron, who appears to still be doing TV work post-Rectify, which I couldn't be happier about). I ultimately liked how this plot dovetailed with Dory's decision to give April the blackmail material that Mary might pay to keep quiet, but too much of it felt like Search Party having no idea what to do with Julian, while understanding that it needs to keep him around for the moment when Dory inevitably starts telling him everything.

What was up with that sexual harassment plot line, though?

Caroline: I didn't like that sexual harassment plot line either. As with most things Julian, it felt underbaked. It's also weird to me that Search Party season two went out of its way to show how perceptive Julian is, like when he figured out that Chantal's big tragic story was a lie, but then he still didn't piece together that Dory is probably also caught up in Chantal’s rapidly unraveling lies in some way or another.

If I give the show the benefit of the doubt, though, I'd say that Julian's experience getting short shrift for Dory and company's ongoing drama is maybe part of the point. In Search Party’s second season especially, the selfishness at the core of how the four main characters function was spotlighted and challenged more than ever.

Dory struggled to reckon with the fact that she might not actually be that great of a person, making a late-season push to save her friends if she could. Drew tried to position himself for a job in China by ruthlessly — if ultimately inefficiently — sabotaging a co-worker's entire life. Elliott fully collapsed in on himself under the weight of his constant lies, self-destructing in spectacular fashion (a mindset that Early, as ever, is incredible at portraying). Portia, bless her, is maybe the only person who truly stumbled into this whole mess blind. (Also, I wasn’t familiar with Hagner before Search Party, but she is now my favorite.)

Meanwhile, if you were surprised by my uncertainty over whether Dory really attacked April, Todd, I have to say I was surprised at your assumption that one of Dory’s friends ratted her out! The idea that someone would turn never occurred to me. No matter how much they all may resent each other, it still feels more likely to me that Dory's downfall came about thanks to some messy bad luck, the same way their messy murder did.

Search Party
Only bad things can happen next.

Todd: Right. Let me rephrase that. I think it's pretty clear that Dory will decide that one of her friends ratted her out. Whether Search Party itself will decide to pursue that story path is very much up in the air (though I think it could create a fun guessing game for the next season, assuming there is one). The show really needs a central dilemma to work, and "Which of my friends is scum?" is exactly the sort of thing that could give Dory a new mystery to pursue.

That's important, I think, because I've seen some fretting that season two wasn't as solid as season one due to the removal of the mystery plot line. I honestly think the "How do we cover up Keith's corpse?" story was a better fit for the show than "Where is Chantal?" because it emerged more organically from all the characters than from Dory's need for purpose. But I can also point to the places around middle of the season where Search Party spun its wheels just a bit, sometimes brilliantly (with Drew's attempts to move to China) and sometimes less so (the sexual harassment plot).

All of that brings me to one last question about this show: What do you think Search Party is saying about 20-somethings in general and the millennial generation more specifically? It feels like a very scabrous, pointed satire of the need that all of us have at a young age to imagine ourselves as the center of some grand story, but I feel like there's some other level there, burbling below the surface, that I just haven't quite cracked.

Caroline: Oh, boy.

Well, for starters, I don’t think Search Party is at all arguing that Millennials Ruined Everything, or even that they’re more self-centered than any other generation. Many of the adults over 30 that we meet on the show — from Mary Ferguson to Jay Duplass’s manipulative stage director character to dead Keith — are just as flawed and selfish as the 20-somethings they deride.

But some of Search Party’s sharpest, most pointed material certainly takes aim at some specific millennial tropes, like sacrificing personal integrity in the name of #brand building (see: Elliott and Chantal’s pathological lying), and unearned self-righteousness (see: Drew’s hypocritical high horse, Dory insisting that her constant quests for meaning come from just being a good person, dammit).

Much of this material works better than most straight-up millennial bashing because Search Party creators Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers aren’t just genuinely fond of their obsessively myopic characters but also interested in interrogating them. The series can show that Julian has an instinct for sniffing out good stories even as it acknowledges that he enjoys the feeling of being lauded. It can have sympathy for Drew getting caught in a web he never saw coming even as it reveals the self-serving lengths he will go to in order to save his own skin. It can highlight Dory’s selfishness even as it portrays, with great care, her searing pain.

These are the moments that keep me coming back to Search Party and laughing at its “lol millennials” jokes, because they make me feel like the show actually understands and sympathizes with the specific demographic it’s skewering.

Todd: I think that balance between satire and empathy is what makes the series so good and Dory, especially, such a compelling character (though it’s worth reiterating that she wouldn’t work at all without Shawkat’s nuanced performance). Search Party isn’t a show I turn to to laugh my head off, but I do catch its jokes sneaking up on me long after I’ve watched them, at odd moments, when I’m feeling particularly self-satisfied. It has such a neat way of puncturing its characters’ bubbles — and our own.

You can watch Search Party’s two seasons via TBS’s on-demand services, and there is no better way to spend a day during a holiday break.

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