“Would anyone even care if something bad happened to me?” Dory Stewart (Alia Shawkat), the heroine of TBS’s Search Party, asks that question early in this new comedy-drama about friends searching for a classmate who’s gone missing. It’s a testament to the show’s precise control of tone that we read it for what it is: a rhetorical question, and maybe a philosophical inquiry directed at Dory herself. No, nobody would care if Dory disappeared. Well, not “nobody” — maybe Dory’s family and some of her friends might. But would they take action? Not most of them. They’d tweet or up-vote or text emoji to each other and then tell the same handful of like-minded people about how upset they were, as if describing their horror were the same as doing something about it.
It’s rare to encounter a TV series that could accurately be described as a satire, much less an unsparing one, but Search Party — which TBS is airing all ten episodes of this week, beginning tonight — absolutely qualifies. It’s a mystery about people trying to get to the bottom of a young woman’s disappearance, but that’s just what’s happening on the surface. The mystery is the gimmick that draws you in so that this exceptional and surprising show — credited to a rogue’s gallery of executive producers, including Michael Showalter, Sarah-Violet Bliss, and Charles Rogers — can work its dark magic. Dory hangs out with a group of New York twentysomethings who could be minor characters on HBO’s Girls — comfortable, liberal, oblivious, white. But in many ways, this is the series that I always wanted Girls to be: sharper, cooler, more exact in its choice of targets, and less inclined to beg sympathy for fundamentally unsympathetic characters. It seems less influenced by any other TV series about twentysomethings than by such pitch-black, satirically minded art-house classics as The Exterminating Angel. How in the hell did this thing end up on commercial television?
Dory and her friends have all been confronted with an awful reality: One of their own, a classmate with the Thomas Pynchon-esque name Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty), has vanished. “Missing” posters have gone up in Dory’s neighborhood, and when she spots one for the first time, in the opening scene of the pilot, the image strikes her in a deep place. But it’s their reaction to this horror that really drives the series. Search Party is not mainly a procedural, although it does have that aspect, attempting to answer the question, “If something like this happened in your life, what could you do to get to the bottom of it?”
Chantal’s vanishing is a device that the show uses to explore Dory’s world and make uncomfortable observations about modern life, in particular the tendency to confuse the ego-stroking virtual busywork of the text- and social media-driven era for actual, meaningful action. Dory’s friend Elliott (John Early), a gay male version of a “model-actress-whatever,” learns of Chantal’s disappearance and greets it with barely a shrug, then instantly posts of his “distress” on Twitter. “In shock. Sad news about a sweet girl. Keep an eye out, people.” Portia (Meredith Hagner), an actress who prides herself on her ability to cry on cue, struggles to remember if she slept with one of the waiters serving her brunch, then announces that she’s so sad she might weep; she is more consumed with her resentment of her more famous and accomplished sister and her cherished gig on a police procedural that seems rather like one of the many “not-bad-so-why-change-the-channel” series that are TBS’s bread and butter. A fight between a couple on a lower Manhattan street ends with the camera panning to reveal a bystander who captured the entire thing on his iPhone and is probably going to upload it to Twitter.
Dory’s boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), might be the most appalling of the bunch because he presents as a Nice Guy. When he and Dory overhear a possibly violent fight happening in the apartment of a couple that lives upstairs, she wants to intervene or at least report the disturbance, and he offers reason after reason why that would be pointless. “Something terrible could be happening,” Dory protests. “Something terrible is happening everywhere, all the time,” he counters. When he finally does intervene, the language he uses is so stalker-creepy — telling the young woman she’s welcome to sleep on their couch and use their shower — that she curses him out.
There’s an even deeper level to this series, something on the order of an existential quest, a long journey into the heroine’s emotional interior. I don’t know if it’s the nighttime New York settings or the generally dreamlike aura, but parts of Search Party reminded me — no joke — of Eyes Wide Shut, a gloss on the narrative structure of The Odyssey, but where the hero of that film keeps encountering women who represent aspects of his views towards his dissatisfied wife (Penelope to his Odysseus), here Dory keeps encountering women who seem to reflect shards of her own scattered, numbed psyche — in particular her fear that she’s either imagining a lot of this or that she’s going insane.
The condition of believing oneself sensitive while feeling very little has rarely been examined with such exactness. The cast is exceptional, never carrying themselves as if they are above the often confused, petty, or weak characters they portray; Shawkat in particular is a revelation, at times channeling the doe-eyed distress of Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. This is just a great show, refreshingly unafraid to twist the knife — a late-breaking candidate for best series of 2016, arriving near the end of a year that’s had so many candidates I can barely keep track of them.