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Search Party does everything Big Little Lies did but better and with laughs

It’s a savage satire of 20-somethings and an effective mystery. It’s great.

Search Party’s characters investigate a mystery.
The Search Party gang tries to solve a new crisis.
TBS

In Watch This, Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff tells you what she’s watching on TV — and why you should watch it too. Read the archives here. This week: the dark comedy Search Party, which airs on TBS. It is available on TBS’s streaming platforms, as well as for digital rental and purchase.

Were you deeply disappointed in the second season of Big Little Lies? Are you nevertheless excited by the idea of self-involved, privileged people getting sucked deeper and deeper into a life of crime, sometimes for good reasons?

Well, have I got a show for you! TBS’s Search Party, which hasn’t aired a new episode since 2017 but will, God willing, return for its long-delayed third season later this year, is one of my favorite comedies on TV. It’s possessed of a dark sense of humor and an even darker sense of when to yank the rug out from under its characters. It has evolved so much from its original premise of, essentially, “What if the characters from Girls got sucked into a Hitchcock film?” and it serves as an amazing vehicle for star Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development).

But even though it’s a comedy and a frequently savage satire of millennial-targeted entitlement, it’s also an effective thriller, with perfect cliffhangers, great pacing, and moody cinematography to match.

Search Party is a great comedic spin on the Breaking Bad model

The Brooklyn Five
Everything goes wrong for the Search Party characters.
TBS

One thing Search Party does well is expand its storytelling without losing sight of its original hook. In the first episode, Dory (Shawkat), feeling bored and frustrated with her life, decides to investigate the disappearance of a college friend named Shantal.

Well, “friend” is stretching it. Shantal was really more of a person whom Dory sort of knew. And even though nobody has seen hide nor hair of Shantal for weeks, the evidence pointing to what happened to her is scant at best. Dory isn’t a detective or anything like that. She’s not someone who might sift through that evidence to find promising leads and possible culprits. She’s just a young woman who feels like she needs something more in her life.

I don’t dare say more about what happens after that initial setup — except to say that in the very first episode, Dory is pretty sure she sees Shantal, even if nobody believes her. But Search Party very quickly twists and turns; it’s a comedy and a mystery, with all the red herrings and narrow escapes from horrible fates that you might expect from the genre.

Search Party has much in common with Breaking Bad. The frustrated protagonists of both shows make one fateful decision — to cook meth in Breaking Bad; to investigate a disappearance in Search Party — and everything that happens next can be tied back directly to that choice. As the show continues, its plot twists get more intentionally ludicrous, but because it’s grounded in solid characters, the twists never overwhelm everything else.

More importantly, the show isn’t a spoof. It takes its mystery seriously, even as it treats its characters as the incredibly self-involved, occasionally silly people they can be. Dory recruits her boyfriend Drew and her best friends Portia and Elliott to her quest, and all five characters become very specific sketches of a particular type of 20-something ridiculousness.

Vain actress Portia (Meredith Hagner) and trend-chasing Elliott (John Early) are Search Party’s breakout characters; both are over-the-top in the manner of great comedic TV supporting players. But to my mind, the show’s best supporting player is Drew (John Reynolds), who is on the verge of seeing his life really take off, only to find himself constantly dragged into more nonsense by Dory’s quest to find Shantal. What is it that draws these two people together? And why don’t they just ... break up?

At its core, Search Party is about how hard it is to accept your own adulthood. Dory wanted a life that involved more than idling away in low-wage jobs. Wasn’t she supposed to accomplish something great? If she can solve the mystery of the missing Shantal, that might qualify. Right? But then what happens?

Finding a purpose in your 20s is never easy. It’s also the theme of much of the work of Search Party co-creators Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers (who are also responsible for the wonderful movie Fort Tilden). Search Party might not be as memeable as Big Little Lies, but for my money, it has more to say about what happens when ordinary people get sucked into a soapy, over-the-top mystery. We all like to think we’d be the hero in that situation, but very few of us would actually manage the feat.

Search Party is available to stream on TBS’s website. It’s also available for digital rental and download. Season three does not yet have a premiere date.