“I don’t know, honestly, if you’re becoming a terrible person, or if you were always a terrible person and I just couldn’t see it.” Drew Gardner (John Reynolds) said that to his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat), near the end of the first season of Search Party, as they drove from New York City to Montreal with two friends to locate an ex-college classmate whose disappearance kicked the show’s plot into motion. Drew was upset because he just learned that Dory cheated on him with a private investigator named Keith Powell (Ron Livingston), but what happens to the friends after that point — and if you don’t know what I’m referring to, you should stop reading now — gives the line the eerie ring of prophecy. It’s a variation on the question that a lot of great antihero shows pose in regard to their charismatic but disturbing main characters. Years ago, we wondered if Walter White became a sociopathic, murderous, power-mad criminal after his cancer diagnosis, or if he was always a bad person and a life crisis gave him permission to finally become the man he would’ve become if he hadn’t been constrained by bourgeois morality. It’s an unanswerable question, but great fuel for drama if the writers know what they’re doing.
The writers of Search Party know what they’re doing. That’s not to say that season two is as exciting and satisfying as season one; I don’t think it is. But then, I may only be saying that because season two is a strong variation on something I’ve seen done before, in both TV and cinema, whereas season one was a surprise from start to finish, and evolved so deftly while you were watching that it was hard to describe what you were seeing without oversimplifying it. I’ve been cheerleading for Search Party since late last year, when it lit up TBS a few days before Thanksgiving. Co-created by Sarah Violet-Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter, it was a nearly uncategorizable series that kept shifting its genre and recalibrating its emotional temperature. It was an amateur detective story, with Dory becoming obsessed by the disappearance of her aforementioned classmate, Chantal Winterbottom (Claire McNulty). It was also a story of young people coming to terms with who they actually are, expressed not only through Dory and Drew, but also through their friends Elliott Goss (John Early) and Portia Davenport (Meredith Hagner); a soap opera about couples, which came into its own when a neighbor in a violent relationship came on to Drew while Dory embarked on an affair with Keith; and a withering satire about morality and performance in the age of social media.
As strong as Search Party’s first season was the first time out, it plays even better the second time around, when you know that it culminates with Drew’s impulsive killing of Keith. All of the major characters were engaged in deceptions of one kind or another: Keith lied about being hired by Chantal’s family; Dory had sex with Keith and didn’t admit it to Drew even after he confessed a near-miss with his neighbor; the blonde, white Portia became semi-famous by playing a Hispanic woman on a procedural (when Portia’s mom, played by the great Christine Ebersole, learned that she was written out of the show, she told her that she was “stealing” that role from the Latino community anyway); and Elliott gained sympathy in the run-up to a business venture by falsely claiming to have survived stage-four cancer.
Search Party takes an almost Luis Buñuelian disgusted delight in showing how insincerity, bad faith, manipulation, and blatant falsehood are ingrained in American social life and in the economy itself. When another mutual friend, a reporter named Julian (Brandon Micheal Hall), exposes Elliott’s lie in New York Magazine and torpedoes his bid to start a company that’ll export bottled water to drought-stricken Ugandans, Elliott promptly lands a book deal to write a memoir “about my life as a liar.” Even tiny interactions in this story pivot on deception. Notice how, at the start of season one’s masterful “The Night of One Hundred Candles,” Portia talked Dory into giving up his shotgun seat on the drive to Chantal’s vigil by telling him she needs it “because of my equilibrium.” (Related: None of the main four characters really knew Chantal, but they all acted like they did.)
“I want you to feel shame,” Elliott’s sometime-boyfriend Marc (Marc) asked as a precondition of taking him back in season one. But Elliott can’t feel shame. He’s just not wired for it. And the more time we spend around the other members of this merry band of amateur sleuths, the more we start to suspect that they’re all shame-impaired, and potentially as destructive as other characters we met and were rattled by, such as the apparent cult leader operating out of Parker Posey’s hip craft store, who presented himself as a gentle-souled healer but psychologically destroyed people after persuading them to “share,” and a temp played by Rosie Perez who claimed to be a “head real estate agent” and even had the title printed up on business cards.
Without delving too deeply into season two, we’re dealing with a lot of baby Walter Whites now. Every major character can be measured against Drew’s formulation: Were they always horrible people, or did season one’s climatic twist force them to become such people in order to remain free?
To enjoy this new phase, you’ll have to decide to accept the show that’s been given to us rather than what might’ve been if Search Party hadn’t decided to cross this particular Rubicon. Simply put, I’m less excited about the show this time around because I’ve seen many versions of this story before, and I’ve never seen anything quite like season one of Search Party.
Still, I admire the writers’ willingness to lean into the implications of Keith’s death and milk the aftermath for maximum paranoia. Dory seems most horrified by what she’s become, reacting physically by having panic attacks and hallucinations. The show’s production design goes full Hitchcock, working not-so-subtle editorial commentary into the background. (Signs in the shovel section of a hardware store brag of “Burying the competition” and “Drop dead prices.”)
There are moments when the second season attains a swoony delirium, comparable to great thrillers about amateur criminals stumbling through a cover-up while doing things that are bound to get them caught. Drew’s arc is particularly disturbing: Even though you would think him capable of far less heinous acts than Elliott, a natural born manipulator who brags about what a good liar he is, Drew comes across as much more calculating and scary whenever he does decide to transgress a norm. He lies and manipulates with full, dark knowledge of the better self that he’s leaving behind. He reminds me a little bit of Bill Paxton’s character in the great, still-underrated 1998 Sam Raimi thriller A Simple Plan — a guy who seems like the most moral and reasonable member of a group of conspirators, but who ultimately proves to be the worst one of all.
*A version of this article appears in the November 27, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.