Spoilers ahead for the first season of Search Party
In a lot of ways, TBS’s Search Party feels familiar. Its half-parody, half-sincere depiction of Brooklyn and that infamous millennial aesthetic is by now a fond, almost hoary trope of TV about (usually white) urban young adulthood. There’s a big piece of Search Party’s DNA that comes out of the Girls/Broad City vein, a careful mix of real youthful ennui and tongue-in-cheek jabs at privileged young people searching for themselves. The other big chunk of Search Party’s genetic makeup is similarly familiar, much more so even than the Brooklyn comedy — it’s a detective story, one of the oldest, best-established genres of serial fiction. It’s Veronica Mars, it’s Twin Peaks, it’s Sherlock Holmes, it’s Wilkie Collins.
How is it possible that the combination of those two incredibly familiar things feels so fresh?
Genre mixing often has this effect — the combination of two apparently incompatible narrative premises ends up making them both look original. It tends to happen with science fiction and horror premises (the Western mixes of Firefly or Westworld, Outlander’s historical fantasy); detective fiction is also a common choice. Detectives at the beach! Detectives who are zombies! Historical detectives! Future detectives! Robot detectives! But Search Party is unusual in the choice to mix detective fiction with something comedic, and to do so in a way that allows the mystery to stay serious. The two genres would seem to work at cross-purposes, with the detective fiction relying on sincere emotional engagement and the satire aiming at a detached ironic distance. Rather than pitting them against one another, though, Search Party is able to hold them in careful balance, and actually use the two genres to enhance each other.
You could go to any number of scenes for great examples of Search Party’s genre-bending prowess. The cult plot in the middle of the season has some of the best, most nimble instances of this — somehow, Dory’s search for Chantal and Parker Posey’s mysterious Anthropologie-themed pregnancy cult get smushed right up against the absurdity of Elliott and Portia trying to hang out at an unpleasant dinner party. In my favorite moment, the cult members solemnly intone, “We hear you” after Portia shares her intimate feelings with the group, and among the chorus, you can hear Elliott chiming in, “We hear you, girl.”
It’s the Search Party project all packed into one tiny line. The three characters go undercover to do detection in a truly sinister cult, and it’s paired with Elliott giving props to his self-absorbed friend for her eye-rolling frustration about the perils of being girly and smart. (Even better, Portia’s quavering announcement that she’d like to paint her nails and still be taken seriously is ridiculous, but also not wrong.) And nearly every sequence in the cult plot is like this. Elliott and Portia glance around in aloof horror at how weird everyone is, and we, the audience, agree … but we’re also fully with Dory, egging her on in her quest for more information about Chantal.
This is the gift that the detective plot gives to the series’ Girls-esque “aimless young person in search of meaning” vibe. Part of the problem with a show like Girls, or with other parody/comedy texts, is that there’s no forward momentum, nothing to drive the viewer from one brunch scene to the next. Oh sure, stories about looking for yourself are full of interpersonal tiffs and ever-present financial crises, but nothing holds a candle to a mystery story’s magnetic, forward-moving impulse. Search Party is able to tack its “Dory doesn’t know what to do with her life” theme onto a narrative structure that drives us forward with her, dropping clues and new information that keeps us motivated at the same time as it encourages Dory to keep going. Where someone like Hannah Horvath gets frustratingly stuck inside her endless loop of minor progress and immediate regression, Dory’s attached herself to a story that barrels along like an oncoming train.
That inevitable, unstoppable momentum reaches its peak in the finale, as Dory and the gang head to Montreal after finally tracking down Chantal’s address. The mystery plot takes over, culminating in a classic thriller sequence as ally turned enemy Keith pursues Dory through the scarily austere modernist house, heart-rate-stimulating bass beat accompanying her as she crouches, terrified, in the shadows. We forget that this is a show that opened with a young woman just looking for what to do with herself, who recently quit her job as a personal assistant to a wealthy woman and who has little in her life other than her mostly terrible friends. At this point, Dory’s gone full Nancy Drew, and it leads to her accidentally making Keith wallop his head on a (gorgeous, CB2-esque) granite countertop, before her ex-boyfriend Drew finishes Keith off with one of the house’s convenient objets d’art. Drew was trying to save Dory from Keith, and Dory was only trying to defend herself, but what began as a search for a missing girl has undergone a classic noir-style escalation. They’ve killed a man.
So the mystery plot gives Search Party’s quarter-life crisis story an addictive momentum, pulling its characters and its audience to this sickening, startling end. And this is the moment, this crucial turning point in the finale, where the quarter-life crisis story gives the mystery plot something in return. In a standard mystery genre, Dory’s careful investigation would have come to a satisfying fruition. She’d be right about Keith’s involvement with Chantal’s disappearance, she’d find Chantal, pregnant and traumatized, locked in a closet somewhere. The police would come and drape a blanket around them both, and she’d shakingly recount the story of Keith’s death while a sympathetic, nameless female detective took notes.
Instead, it’s not Dory who tracks down Chantal. It’s airheaded Portia, who finds her while out on a date she picked up hours earlier. And Chantal did not escape to Montreal after being pursued by a pregnancy cult. She did not have a violent altercation in the woods outside her family’s home. She does not need rescuing. She is not in trouble. No, Chantal got into a fight with her (married) boyfriend, and then decided to commit the cardinal sin of the digital era — she just ghosted everyone.
When Hannah Horvath, or some other young person in search of herself, stumbles into the realization that her current life path is meaningless, it’s usually accompanied by a pity spiral, possibly a move back home, and a career reboot. It’s an event, sort of, but it’s mostly a lateral shift. When Dory realizes that Chantal was never in trouble, and that Chantal herself is as empty and shallow (and human) as the rest of them, it’s not like a minor regression or a lateral move. It’s like the bottom entirely drops out. She (and Drew) have killed someone. The fun conflation between Dory’s life and the search for Chantal turns into a horrible collapse, making Dory’s search for meaning into something really, terribly, irreversibly meaningful. The familiar mystery dénouement tends to feel like a long exhale. The final scenes of Search Party are more like someone desperately trying to catch her breath.
It’s entirely thanks to the bizarre and unlikely collision of these two genres, and to Search Party’s willingness to flout its audience’s expectations for satisfaction in both. You wanted the mystery solved? You wanted Dory to find her true calling? Well, here — they solved the mystery, but the answer was mundane and kind of gross. Plus, it turns out Dory was a pretty bad detective. And sure enough, the humor that’s followed Search Party all along shows up here as well, transformed from wry satire into something bitterly dark, as Dory frantically searches for some trauma in Chantal’s story while Keith’s corpse slowly leaks blood from inside the closet where they stuffed him.
The reason Search Party feels so simultaneously familiar and surprising is exactly this generic mixing, a combination of self-aware satire and engrossing mystery that renders both of those categories into something alchemically new. The driving detection plot underneath the comedy is a smart addition, giving us a reason to keep returning to these silly, shallow characters. But it’s the finale’s twist where we can really see the payoff of Search Party’s strange hybridity. Dory’s clichéd mission for knowledge explodes the typical model of detective-fiction endings. Her mission to find Chantal and her refusal to examine herself get all tangled up into a fantastic, interconnected heap, echoing off one another and making them both more awful and more momentous. Portia, in the dark about the violence they’ve committed, giggles gleefully at Chantal’s account. “Isn’t this hilarious, you guys? Like … nothing happened!” Dory’s search didn’t mean anything. And at the end, with Keith exsanguinating in the closet, it’s also going to mean way more than she ever intended.