The Rigorous Satire of Search Party

The Rigorous Satire of Search Party

In its fourth season, the HBO show cements its status as cutting, if imperfect, send-up of millennial self-actualization.


For four seasons, the TV series Search Party has used its cast of New York millennials as a microcosm of imperfect generational behavior. Its main character, Dori Sief (Alia Shawkat), is a directionless late-twentysomething whose lack of ambition or professional qualifications have kept her life in banal stasis. Her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Drew Gardner (John Reynolds), is a prototypical Midwestern “nice guy” whose passivity and sensitivity are mercurial and fraught. Her other two college friends—Elliott Goss (John Early), a queer man-about-town, and bubbly actress Portia Davenport (Meredith Hagner)—are equal parts clueless and self-involved. Together they represent the well-educated, financially comfortable, self-satisfied urbanites who are the implicit subjects of myriad anti-millennial opinion pieces and Twitter threads. If avocado toast (the convenient political symbol, not the food item) could be personified, it would resemble Search Party’s ensemble.

Thankfully, cocreators and showrunners Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers are not in the business of taking stale hipster potshots, nor are they interested in painting their characters in a single negative shade. It’s crucial for Dori and her friends to not be outsize caricatures, that their behavior not be inherently representative of any larger trend. While the show’s humor is frequently at their expense, it springs from the crew’s distinctive characterizations. Their flawed perceptions, their shortsighted reactions, and their desperate justifications for their own imprudent behavior are presented honestly and appropriately exploited for entertainment. While their reckless sense of self-possession makes them compelling to watch, especially when they’re being awful, this quality eventually reveals the nonexistence of any true identity in the bunch. Still, they aren’t so straightforwardly contemptible as to render any potential downfall an easy victory. Satire requires good targets, but it also demands a rigorous gaze.

That gaze flourishes within a genre-shifting narrative whose stakes are constantly being redefined. Search Party’s first season follows Dori’s quest to find an old college acquaintance, Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty), after she suddenly goes missing, an obsession that injects some purpose into Dori’s aimless life. She and her friends eventually track Chantal down to a mansion in Montreal, where they discover she wasn’t in danger but was selfishly hiding away from her friends and family. Their myopic pursuit for an egotistical rich girl could have been chalked up to a giant misunderstanding; but before they learn the truth, Dori and Drew accidentally murder private investigator Keith Powell (Ron Livingston), whose brief collaboration with Dori on her search led to an affair and obsession.

The second season follows the ensemble as they haphazardly cover up Powell’s murder and contend with their guilt and deteriorating sanity. It climaxes with Dori pushing her combative, unstable neighbor April (Phoebe Tyers) off the Staten Island ferry after she blackmails the gang with an audio recording of them confessing their crimes. April’s suppurating class resentment and personal animosity might animate her motivations, but her stated reason for extorting them is simple: “I don’t like how you guys carry yourselves,” she says, before thinking for a second and then following it up with “and I don’t think you should kill people.”

Search Party’s third season finds Dori and Drew on trial for Powell’s murder, which comes to light through an anonymous tip to the police. The trial receives massive media attention because of the assailants’ privilege as well as the grisly nature of the crime. Instead of pleading self-defense, Dori decides to proclaim her total innocence. As the trial goes on, she quickly becomes a tabloid celebrity, someone onlookers “love to hate,” which only intensifies her burgeoning narcissism. Her total denial of reality further alienates her from her friends, all of whom at least accept their culpability, even as they try to evade the consequences of their actions.

Dori’s legal team muddies the prosecution’s case by casting its supposedly airtight evidence in an ambiguous light. But right before closing arguments, Dori fires her lawyer for not believing in her innocence. She wins over the jury by spinning a persuasive line of bullshit that paints her as a victim of circumstance who’s being malignly persecuted by the media, merely “a little girl who just wants to go home.” Her sob story even briefly wins over Portia, who has to be reminded by Elliott that she’s actually guilty.

Immediately after being cleared of all charges, however, Dori receives her karmic retribution by being violently abducted from her apartment by obsessive fan Chip Wreck (Cole Escola). The fourth season, the first exclusively produced by HBO Max, picks up with Dori tied to a chair, sporting a shaved head as she videotapes a profession of friendship to her captor. In other words, the exact place that she assumed Chantal was when she first saw her missing person poster.

Search Party mostly excels because it depicts the group’s flaws and crimes without providing convenient moral outs for the audience. They damn themselves to cruel fates of their own design, building a version of hell in which they’re doomed to be intertwined in a permanently miserable state. Bliss and Rogers ensure that, after a certain point, almost everything that happens to Dori and her friends is their own fault.

Yet the primary reason Search Party has staying power is that Bliss and Rogers’s unsentimental lens doesn’t entirely eliminate the possibility for sympathy, even if it’s permanently qualified. Part of the mechanics of that occur in the way the series constantly shifts the goalposts of likability: It destabilizes the audience’s assumptions and encourages them to question their engagement with the material rather than just passively consume it. It’s tempting to frame this tension between understanding and condemnation as wishy-washy, especially in the context of a serialized narrative, whose demands for viewer retention work in opposition to this kind of rug-pulling. Rather than seeming incoherent, however, this approach feels truer to life, a more honest depiction of the fluctuating nature of close friendships as people exhibit different shades of personality and reveal truer layers of themselves. Even as Bliss and Rogers embrace tonal extremes in the fourth season, eschewing the tightrope they walked for three years, this modus operandi persists. Dramatically speaking, it’s easy to just like or hate a character. It’s more compelling when those emotions vacillate over time.

Bliss and Rogers don’t make excuses for the group’s behavior, but they do productively complicate our attitudes toward them by framing all their adversaries in a similarly unflattering light. April might harbor justifiable resentment against the group, but her volatile behavior combined with the personal animus she holds against Drew for refusing to sleep with her undercuts her moral superiority. Joy Hartman (Tymberlee Hill), a detective investigating Powell’s murder, sees through Dori’s lies almost immediately, but then in turn accidentally shoots someone on duty and also tries to cover up her own crime. Even Polly Danzinger (Michaela Watkins), the prosecuting attorney in Dori and Drew’s trial, weakens her case by treating the trial as a referendum on millennials, framing Dori and her friends as paradigmatic of the worst excesses of their generation, despite her colleague’s informing her that that rhetoric has mostly been played out. All of these people have accurate judgments of Dori and her friends, but either their temperament or their hypocrisy makes it difficult for them to become a rooting interest.

The shrewdest move of Bliss and Rogers was to contrast the fates of the main group with that of Chantal, who’s as much of a grifter as they are but doesn’t have the same savoir faire to pull it off. After her mysterious disappearance is outed as the bratty desertion that it was, Chantal throws herself headfirst into a half-assed business venture, but her dreams of being a girl-boss are stymied when a swindling investor, played by Wallace Shawn, sees an opportunity to use her as a funnel for his fraudulent assets. A gullible stooge incapable of sensing any sort of deception, Chantal goes to jail on multiple counts of felony fraud, as she’s the perfect scapegoat for crimes she doesn’t understand. Though Chantal remains a minor character in Search Party, Bliss and Rogers neatly juxtapose her swift disgrace with the frantic attempts of Dori and her friends to stay above water. Granted, Chantal’s crimes are far less serious than the group’s, but she shares with them the same arrogant egotism and refusal to accept responsibility. The only difference is that they’re savvier than the spoiled, painfully sheltered Chantal.

In the fourth season, the members of the group literally wear different personae to move further away from who they were earlier. Drew takes a job at a theme park, where he can be an anonymous character in costume. Portia angles to play Dori in a shoddy film about the murder and trial. Elliott becomes a bigoted conservative pundit on TV, just for a taste of fame. Of course, all of these rash attempts to become different people collapse, but it’s Dori who falls hardest. Though her rejection of reality might have served well in court, it makes her the perfect candidate for Stockholm syndrome when an unbalanced admirer captures her, causes her to break down, and remolds her in his own image.

Search Party’s ambitious fourth season, much like its characters, frequently struggles to resolve its split personality. Dori’s Misery-esque capture is appropriately harrowing, with her mental collapse and aggressive brainwashing played as disturbingly as possible, notably in regard to her realization that Wreck has designed an uncanny re-creation of her Brooklyn apartment for her to live in. Meanwhile, the stories involving the rest of the cast move in a more broadly comedic direction. (Elliott’s conservative heel turn, especially, features a reach for the lowest-hanging fruit; his manic Tomi Lahren–esque cohost feels transported from a lesser show.) The season’s two modes eventually dovetail when Drew, Elliott, and Portia vow to search for Dori, but the bifurcated nature of this development creates a sense of imbalance that the show can’t fully overcome, even when Bliss and Rogers actively seek to reconcile it.

Similarly, Escola’s performance as Wreck, while initially effective in conveying the character’s frightening manipulation of Dori, eventually becomes a one-note affair. Wreck is interesting only insofar as the kinds of physical and psychological damage he can inflict on Dori holds our interest. But as soon as we discover more about his character—his cross-dressing, his oddball reputation in town, that he’s a product of incest by his father (Griffin Dunne) and Aunt Lylah (Susan Sarandon)—he becomes more archetypical, someone whose permanent alienation leads them to believe they’re helping someone when they’re just causing them immense pain. When the season approaches its halfway point, both Dori and Wreck become fairly monotonous in their suffering and domination, respectively, and in time, their shared arc becomes merely an actor’s showcase that, while technically impressive, is less persuasive as fiction.

Despite these missteps in execution, the ideas underpinning Search Party’s fourth season are the strongest so far. Bliss and Rogers meditate on the “authentic self,” and how any honest pursuit of that idea requires honest introspection about your personality and values. For Drew, Elliott, and Portia, the choice to wear different identities signals an unwillingness to confront their respective actions. Because of the traumatic circumstances of Dori’s capture, she’s compelled to admit the full truth and face her engulfing self-loathing head on. But after Dori is successfully deprogrammed from Wreck’s brainwashing, she’s eager to return to Wreck’s clutches, to be under his spell, because living an honest life is too much to bear. Only Chantal, who writes a terrible memoir that serendipitously receives attention from an Oprah-like figure, owns up to her actions, even if she doesn’t comprehend how poorly that reflects upon her.

The characters on Search Party confront their actions only when it’s most personally convenient for them, or in other words, when it’s too late for that self-awareness to have any tangible impact. Dori most strongly embodies this idea when, at the end of the fourth season, she’s most in need of saving at the exact moment her friends finally give up searching for her—she and the group coming to opposite conclusions about how to help the other. Bliss and Rogers’s project reaches a peak when it explores the idea of Dori as a ghost, haunting her closest friends, who have finally found some peace in her absence. Search Party’s cruelest irony finds purchase in this surreal space: One person’s death might beget the growth of all the lives they touched.

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