“But where is she?”
“That’s the question. No one knows…”
I watch a sickening, obsessive amount of television. As a result, I’ve gotten pretty familiar with the medium and the storytelling that it’s capable of creating. Approaching TBS’s new show, Search Party, there were a lot of suspects in play that I was familiar with, such as the series coming from Michael Showalter and the team behind Fort Tilden, Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, it being a classical mystery, and that Alia Shawkat is starring in the piece.
And yet, Search Party is unlike any other show that I’ve seen before. The synthesis of these familiar ingredients turns into something layered, different, and deeply impactful that you kind of need to check out.
On its surface level, Search Party is a show about the mystery of a missing girl, Chantal. You’ve probably gathered as much from any ads you’ve seen for the program. As a mystery, Search Party certainly succeeds on the merits of creating something suspenseful as Alia Shawkat’s Dory and company try to put together the pieces of what happened to Chantal. It’s also saying a whole lot more. Search Party effectively highlights the beautiful, chaotic nature of life, and brilliantly decides to filter that through a bunch of twenty-somethings. There’s something endlessly entertaining about seeing vapid individuals make someone else’s disappearance about themselves as well as exploring other spot-on millennialisms.
As I first started watching this show, I began to think that the missing Chantal was perhaps faking the whole disappearance to build publicity for her self-published book. Then I started to form conspiracies as ornate as the ones that begin to take over Dory’s life. Search Party is a show that demands to be discussed, whether with real-life friends or online ones.
This is also a series that is just straight up addictive. Clues are strategically given out making this a show that should be binged and actually benefits from TBS’ marathon-like airing approach for the show (as opposed to the binge tactic used for Angie Tribeca, which was nice, but hardly had as urgent of storytelling). You want to watch more, just like Dory and crew want to learn more about Chantal’s situation.
The show lives and dies by its characters. Alia Shawkat’s Dory is like if Nancy Drew and Daria had a lovechild. Her group of friends is the aimless, self-interested Scooby Gang of our generation. Sound a little like Kristen Bell’s Veronica Mars? Not even a little. Dory is the sort of person that would spill her drink on Veronica while awkwardly bringing up her absentee mother… right after sleeping with her boyfriend. Dory has more than a few issues to reconcile, but they’re deeply relatable problems that turn her into a character that’s as addictive as the mystery she’s trying to solve. She continually puts her foot further and further down her mouth and you want to scream at her to stop. She keeps making foolish—albeit passionate—decisions. While she can certainly be hard to watch at times, it points towards a well-developed character that you’ve gotten invested in.
Shawkat is perfect here, but so is the entire supporting cast. Really not enough can be said about them (as well as choice guest stars like Griffin Newman, Parker Posey, and Ron Livingston). John Early is especially on fire as Elliott, with this maybe being his strongest vehicle yet. Meanwhile, the show also gets to be a huge launching pad for other emerging talents, like John Reynolds, who absolutely destroys this performance as Drew, Dory’s boyfriend. He’s able to serve back everything that Shawkat throws at him.
Drew is such a fantastic, neurotic trainwreck that feels like George Costanza mixed with Happy Ending’s Max Bloom. He’s always trying to do the right thing and incredibly empathetic, but whenever he tries to help people he ends up becoming this agent of chaos that brings on a storm. It’s a great performance and an enjoyable character. Furthermore, all of these characters are the sort of people you would want to be hanging out and solving a mystery with. Maybe my favorite thing about this show is that people aren’t idiots. Characters are intelligent and respond how reasonable people should. Madcap craziness goes on, but characters are quick to call one another on it and ground them back down to reality.
Search Party also manages to unlock some really impactful, brutal relationship commentary. There are some painful fights that go on in this show where people say the real things that you actually do during messy fights. It has some of the most realistic arguments I’ve seen since Netflix’s Love, which is a show that just gutted me. Shawkat and Reynolds’ chemistry in this broken union is off the charts and watching their dysfunctional relationship go nuclear is a great side course to the larger mystery of the series. Search Party in a lot of ways is about people trying to find meaning, and in many cases that comes down to the relationships they’re in, the people they’re with, and the roles that they play.
What’s also fun with Search Party is that practically each episode gets into a different mystery trope, usually almost by accident, stumbling into these very serious situations. There’s an overwhelming feeling of being in over your head, and yet you want to swim deeper into that undertow. It’s powerful. The intrigue actually gets scary at times too as people close in on Dory and try to stop her pursuit for answers. This even culminates in a super tense game of cat-and-mouse. There are tons of surprises here that hit hard right up until the end of the season, with this hardly keeping all of the big stuff for the beginning of the show.
Granted, the first episode of the series might largely act as introduction, but it does do a good job getting you into all of these characters’ heads. It digs into that feeling of helplessness and wanting to have a purpose, with Dory empowering herself in a beautiful way that’s not unlike the turn and need for belonging that’s seen in Bored to Death. Search Party is just as much a search for meaning in your life as it is about a search for Chantal.
Search Party also pushes the jarring reality forward that your whole destiny or trajectory can be dependent upon some gatekeeper’s mood at the random moment you happened to encounter them. Perhaps most beautifully, the series embraces the concept of how we naturally want to make life more exciting than it is and turn reality into some murder mystery. Life is just life and we want to escape it, so we fictionalize and build narratives where there aren’t any. The chaos of that is emblematic of what these people are all going through in different ways shown throughout the season.
Search Party is a lot of things and fortunately it happens to be quite formidable at this varied juggling act. For whatever reason you’re attracted to the show, there’s plenty more to justify sticking around. Real characters, confounding mysteries, and strategic storytelling all cause Search Party to shine. It also doesn’t hurt that it completely sticks the landing in the end with an answer to things that isn’t drawn out and should be satisfying to the suspense sleuths out there. Then again, half the fun is trying to figure it all out.
This review is based on all ten half hour episodes of Search Party’s first season
Search Party’s first season airs on TBS from November 21st-25th at 11pm, with back-to-back episodes each night