It might be helpful to think of Search Party as a bizarro Girls. Yes, it’s populated with the same kind of privileged, self-absorbed young Brooklynites you’ll find in Lena Dunham’s HBO show. But unlike Hannah Horvath, Search Party’s heroine, Dory (Alia Shawkat), actually seems to care about things beyond her own navel.
As the series begins, Dory finds herself mesmerized by a missing person sign taped to a lamppost. (She also finds herself literally standing in shit, a nifty metaphor for the state of her life.) It turns out Dory went to college with the missing girl in question — the improbably named Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty) — and although they barely knew each other, Dory is greatly affected by her disappearance. She’s itching to tell her friends the news, but when she arrives for brunch, they barely remember Chantal and couldn’t be less interested.
“She had nothing to offer. She was always brushing her hair,” says Elliott (John Early), a self-described stylist/designer/actor who “could curate” if he wanted to. “She was very jealous of me,” says Portia (Meredith Hagner), an actress who has just landed a semi-regular part on a TV procedural. “I’m going to need more ketchup,” says Dory’s man-child, live-in boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds), as he frantically tries to flag down the waiter.
Of course, their lack of interest in Chantal’s disappearance doesn’t stop them from blasting their concern all over social media. “I’m in shock,” Elliott tweets. “Sad news about a sweet girl.” They all assume Dory will get over this fixation, but instead, she becomes slightly obsessed, stalking Chantal’s Facebook page for clues and learning all she can about the investigation.
Later, at a rooftop party, we meet a few more people in Dory’s orbit: Her journalist ex-boyfriend Julian (Brandon Micheal Hall), and Elliott’s lover Marc (Jeffery Self), whom Elliott refuses to call his boyfriend. “I swallow your cum. I take your mom to brunch,” Marc tells him. “I think that makes me your boyfriend.” Hard to argue.
As for Dory, she can’t get into the party mood because she’s preoccupied with Chantal. The obvious question: Why does Dory care so much? Search Party suggests that it’s partly just her nature; she’s also concerned about an upstairs neighbor who seems to be in an abusive relationship. (“Should we do something?” she asks Drew, as they listen to the shouting and banging above. “Something terrible could be happening.” “Something terrible is happening everywhere,” he replies.)
But Dory’s also feeling a little lost herself. All of her friends are pursuing (seemingly) fulfilling careers and she’s stuck in a dead-end job as an assistant to a “rich lady who’s married.” She tries to volunteer for a young women’s leadership program and gets rejected. “Honestly, you’re not even equipped to teach tic-tac-toe,” the interviewer tells her. Later, when Dory goes to Julian’s apartment for some comfort and reassurance, she moans, “Would anyone even care if something bad happened to me?”
“You’re doing the victim-y thing,” he replies, adding for good measure, “I think you’ve decided this matters to you because you have nothing else.”
Although Julian is totally cute and Drew looks like a preppie, stretched-out Jim J. Bullock, it was in this moment that I decided I actually prefer Drew. Yes, he expects Dory to mother him. Yes, he plays painfully awful songs on his ukulele. And yes, he is world’s least considerate lover. But he’s not all bad. After all, when Dory got rejected by that women’s leadership program, he really seemed to care. (He was smothery and tone deaf to the signals she was putting out, but at least he tried, right?) By his own volition, he also knocks on the door of that neighbor in distress, offering her a “safe space.” In response, she screams at him and tells him he has a little dick. As this show makes abundantly clear, New York is where sentimentality goes to die, but again, props for trying.
By the first episode’s end, Dory is feeling pretty horrible until she peers through a Chinese restaurant window and sees a girl in a hoodie who — it can’t be, can it? — looks exactly like Chantal. A man slips into the booth and hands her something, at which point Chantal goes to the bathroom, leaving behind a copy of Anna Karenina. Dory rushes after her, calling out her name, but when she opens the bathroom door, a window is open and Chantal is gone.
At this exact moment, the actual search party that has been combing the park finds a bloody blouse in the woods — Chantal’s blouse. The searchers, who include Chantal’s family and friends, are distraught. Meanwhile, Dory backtracks to grab Chantal’s book and start combing it for clues.
In the second episode, Dory tells her friends about the Chantal sighting and, naturally, they don’t believe her. (“Don’t you think it’s kind of crazy that the moment you become obsessed with this girl, you just magically run into her?” Elliott says.) Also, Drew has figured out that she went to see Julian, and he’s pissed.
Drew arranges to meet Julian, bringing him a milkshake that he definitely didn’t buy for him. Julian tells him he’s pathetic, but no, he didn’t sleep with Dory. Relieved but emasculated, Drew hurls his spare milkshake at Julian and runs.
Meanwhile, Dory takes her story to the police. “When was the last time you saw her before yesterday?” a cop drones, clearly bored. “Six years,” Dory says. “I know that sounds like a long time, but it doesn’t feel that way with social media now.” The cop completely blows her off, compelling her to shout: “I’ll just let you go back to shooting black teens because that’s obviously all you do.”
Minor quibble: Since Dory has Chantal’s book, can’t it be, I dunno, dusted for fingerprints or something? Maybe I’ve been watching too many procedurals myself.
Before leaving the police station, Dory decides to have a good cry in the bathroom, where she’s consoled by a woman named Lorraine (Rosie Perez), a real-estate agent who also wanted to report a Chantal sighting. Dory is elated — finally, a co-conspirator, someone who cares about Chantal’s case as much as she does! She is so excited about this new ally, though, she doesn’t notice that Lorraine is bat-dung crazy. Soon enough, it becomes clear that Lorraine is not only a paranoid nutcase who constantly thinks she’s being followed — and who thinks “they” replaced all the electronics in her home with … the exact same electronics — but she’s the type who probably claims to have spotted every missing person in New York.
That night, there’s another party, this time thrown by Elliott. He has a moment of sincerity — or maybe it’s fake sincerity, it’s so hard to tell with these people — where he shares that he had stage 4 lymphoma as a child and it really made him appreciate his friends. “I love you guys, you are my chosen family. Especially you, Marc — my boyfriend.” Then he leans over and kisses Marc, who was chatting up another dude to make to Elliott jealous. Mission accomplished.
Shortly after this touching moment, Lorraine barges inside to tell Dory that they need to leave, freaking everyone out in the process. There’s a minor scuffle — Lorraine briefly strangles Elliott because she thinks he’s “the Prince of Darkness” — before she’s escorted away by bouncers. Of course, everyone drama queens the hell out of this experience and it leaves Dory more dejected than ever. The cop didn’t believe her, her friends don’t believe her, and the only person who did believe her wound up being crazy as a loon.
Utterly crestfallen, Dory promises herself she’s going to give up this Chantal insanity. But then, as she gives one last longing look at Chantal’s Facebook page, she finds a bona fide clue. The sign Chantal was carrying in her Ice Bucket Challenge video — nice touch, show — has the same star-and-rainbow doodle as an underlined passage in Anna Karenina. It really was Chantal!
The episode ends with another glimpse of Chantal, this time riding a bus out of town. As the mystery of Search Party takes shape, it appears that Dory — the last earnest girl in Brooklyn, our very own 21st-century Nancy Drew — might be her only hope to be found.