The following contains spoilers for every season of Search Party.
On December 17, 2017, the second season of TBS’s mystery comedy Search Party concluded with a full steam of momentum. Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat) had just committed a murder to cover up an accidental murder from season 1, and then is promptly arrested (for the first murder that is). As Dory is ushered into the back of a squad car while still wearing a shapely red dress from the night’s festivities, the future looks pretty bleak for her. For the show, however, the future couldn’t have looked brighter.
Then that future of Search Party never arrived. At least not immediately.
Search Party was created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter. The show premiered on TBS in 2016 with a thrilling first season that depicted a quarter of Brooklyn millennials who decide to investigate the disappearance of one of their old acquaintances, Chantal Witherbottom. After the quest for Chantal ends in an unfortunate bit of murder, the gang spends season 2 dealing with tremendous guilt and paranoia. TBS renewed the show for season 3 in 2018 but then the creators confronted an issue more insidious than any millennial murder mystery: corporate decision-making.
TBS, a WarnerMedia company, found itself subjected to the whims of its parent organization’s ongoing corporate consolidation. The arrival of streaming service HBO Max meant that TBS and other Warner properties like DC Universe had series with built-in fanbases that could help launch the new streamer…whenever it might arrive. Ultimately Search Party season 3 and an already-ordered season 4 were put into a holding pattern.
“I think that season three was wrapped in November, 2018. I don’t know, it’s crazy,” Rogers says.
Finally, three years later, Search Party has made its exclusive home at the newly-released HBO Max. The first two seasons of the show were available to stream there at launch and season 3 just arrived on June 25. Search Party season 3 finds Dory and Drew on trial for their crimes, while Elliot (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) deal with the fallout. We spoke with Bliss and Rogers about crafting the “courtroom drama” season of Search Party, the move to HBO Max, and what’s in store for the already-filmed fourth season.
DEN OF GEEK: When you guys first sat down to write season one of Search Party, was this season in your minds at all? Or is it something that just developed naturally over the course of writing for three seasons?
SARAH-VIOLET BLISS: We definitely didn’t have the full idea from day one. It evolved as we were writing. We always paint ourselves into a corner and then are like, “We’ll figure that out later.” As we were writing we knew that eventually we would have a trials phase, and we thought that would be like season four. But then we realized it had naturally become season three. So it’s just got to be season three. We don’t have a master plan. It comes as it comes. And the show is what it wants to be, as they often say.
When you realized that you were going to be going the trial and courtroom route, how did you go about tackling that? Did you research similar, media-saturated real life cases? Did you go to pop culture for any inspiration?
SVB: Yes. We did all of those things that you just mentioned. We had a lot of inspiration from real life. Dateline and American Crime Story were huge inspirations for us. Amanda Knox, Bling Ring, and My Cousin Vinny too. We watched My Cousin Vinny in the writer’s room. We had a lawyer on hand that we talked to to make sure that everything that we were doing was something that could happen, which apparently a lot happened. We talked about The Staircase a lot. All of that good stuff.
A fascinating part of the season is that it seems like the obvious route would be for them to just claim self-defense. But for some reason that’s not enough for Dory. What went into the characterization of Dory this year? Because it feels like the show reveals a side of her that had only been bubbling below the surface before.
CHARLES ROGERS: We had kind of like loose grip on how we wanted to chart Dory’s journey since the beginning. In the first season she starts off a lot more sweet and innocent. Then what we found with the ending of the first season is that… the mystery at the helm of the first season wasn’t there. There was no mystery in this mystery. So then when we were writing the second season, it was like, “Well, what does it mean for someone to have such a vivid inner life that they need to make that outlet for them?” And we felt like denial was at the crux of Dory’s character.
When we decided that it became a little bit easier to figure out how to pivot her for all of these different situations, because we always want to make sure that we’re saying something interesting about the way that people navigate avoidance and denial. Dory is this figure that we explore that with. In the third season it was like, “Okay. Well, this is a person who won’t own any of the past. How do you take a stand on that, and make it an act of choice for a main character?” She becomes more and more unrecognizable as the Dory that you knew in the third season, but in doing so we wanted to add some layers that hopefully feel implicit in previous seasons and also strangely inevitable that she would end up becoming this person.
For fans of the show it’s been quite a long wait for season three. I have to imagine that you guys have felt the intensity of this wait as well. When was season three wrapped?
CR: I think that season three was wrapped in November, 2018. I don’t know, it’s crazy. It’s really crazy.
What was it like to go through that? Was it a question of all this corporate consolidation with HBO Max coming out? How was it explained to you?
SVB: Yeah. We didn’t know what HBO Max was going to be. So they were like, “Well, we’re going to have a really cool streaming service, but we’re not telling you what it is, just as we’re not telling what the rest of the world is. But it’s going to be great. And We’re going to give you a season four. So that’s exciting.” And so we’re like, “Okay, great!”
What’s been the weirdest part of it is going back and knowing that people haven’t seen season three, and then doing season four and forgetting what is a spoiler for season three and what is a spoiler for season four. There’s so much to catch people up on when I’m trying to emotionally grapple with the stuff that I’m going through in season four on set or whatever. And then the world has changed so much, so that’s a lot to cope with.
Have you finished filming season four as well?
SVB: We have.
CR: Yeah. We finished right before COVID struck. Well, COVID had struck, right before the quarantine. We’re editing it right now. We’re doing press for season three and editing season four. It’s kind of hard to keep track of in our minds.
It’s funny, you mention the ways in which the world has changed since season two. And there’s obviously the extreme ways that we’re going through now. But I think one of the underrated aspects is the change in how society views millennials. Speaking as a millennial myself, it seems like in the span of, what – three, four years we’ve gone from the kid generation, to somehow being elder statesmen to Gen Z now. Is that something that you feel as well in writing the show?
CR: Yeah, yeah. There’s a moment in the third season where Michaela Watkins’s character, who’s the prosecutor, wants to make a sticking point about them being privileged millennials. And her assistant is like, “Well, no one’s really talking about millennials anymore just so you know.” I think that we cringe at trying to make Search Party be this overtly millennial thing, because I feel like that conversation is becoming more and more of the past. Time goes on. At this point now I only hear Sprint and Pinkberry talk about millennials. It’s interesting because I agree with you, we became adults really fast. And I think that the conversation about millennials overstayed its welcome so long that it’s jarring how old we are. Because we were talking as though we were young for so long.
I think to us, we always treated all of the character traits that were a big part of the satire as narcissism, entitlement, and privilege. The things that we feel are very much at the forefront of American society today, and the stuff that is deserving of being slandered. But that’s just always been to us the hallmarks of a type of person. I think that other people put on millennial to do a little bit more marketing with it, which is totally understandable. That’s the way people understand things is through these generational hooks.
At the same time the nature of the show has changed. As the seasons go, it’s just becoming more reflected in our world. Especially within (season) three – like lying, and unreliable authority figures in a corrupt justice system. The bigger, larger satire this season feels relevant to what’s happening now. The millennial vibes that happen feel like they’re just a part of the larger world at this point because we’re all adults now.
This being “the courtroom season”, it feels like it presented a lot of interesting casting opportunities. Everyone in the legal realm from Michaela Watkins, to Louie Anderson, to Shalita Grant works out really well. What was it like to gather together that cast of the legal world?
SVB: It was great. Luckily Michaela and Louie were already fans of the show. So reaching out to them was easy, other than figuring out schedules. Then finding Shalita was a real challenge. We auditioned a million people. Because it was so fun to write that role we thought it was going to be easy to cast and it turned out it wasn’t easy to cast. When we did find Shalita we were like, (EDITOR’S NOTE: Sarah-Violet adopts an angelic, rapturous tone) “There she is!” She really blew us away and was so wonderful to work with.
It’s so great when all of them made their characters so much better than they were already written. They were so fun. Iit was also so fun filming them because the way that we did it, we had all these extras in those seats and so it was like filming a play because all the extras would watch. And after they had these huge monologues they would clap. It gave a great energy into the performances because they were putting on a play.
When did you know that you wanted to have a rift in the group this season? Poor Portia is outcast, Elliot is getting married, and Dory and Drew are fighting for their lives.
CR: We thought about a few different ways that the trial could go, and who would be testifying. In the early days of breaking the season, it was really about trying to figure out what would be the most dynamic thing to do for the audience. We worried that if all of them were in court all the time, you would get fatigued by the lack of outside freedom in storylines. Also Elliot’s wedding was set up at the beginning of last season with the proposal. There were just things in motion that were like, “Well, we know that Elliot and Portia are the icing on the cake of the show.” It made sense for them to be like out and about.
We also didn’t want it to be unrealistic in that there would be no problems between them. We really wanted it to feel like what would happen if a group of friends were all completely at odds? It was important to have little like touchstone moments where they would come back together as a group, or have to be in the same place as a group like at the wedding. And with what happens at the wedding, they’re all put on the same team again against danger.
Speaking of danger, at what point in development did the stalker character come into play? And how does he affect the show going forward?
CR: Yeah. It greatly affects the show. (laughs) It greatly affects the show. Every season we’ll chart out the big picture arc for the season. And some of those things change and some end up staying all the way through to the end of making it. The stalker was something that we thought of in the very beginning. Immediately it was like, “And then there’s your season four.” We knew how it set it up. We also knew that the ending could be this interesting “win and lose” at the same time. We gave ourselves an instant structure for the season. In a lot of ways, I think, season three was our easiest writing experience we’ve had on Search Party because we had a beginning, middle, and end to begin with, and then everything else was just pieces that we needed to move around. Then season four, I’ve been saying this, but it’s the darkest, funniest, and most extreme season. And there’s some very exciting castings in it.