Note: Spoilers for the first season follow.
Search Party’s first season began over brunch, in Brooklyn. Its core cast, four friends in their twenties dealing with privileged ennui, learned that an old college acquaintance Chantal had gone missing. Dory, played by Alia Shawkat, was particularly shaken, though she couldn’t articulate why. Working a soul-crushing job and living with her soul-crushing boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds), Dory grows obsessed with tracking down Chantal, bringing levels of destruction to everything else in her life. Her search takes her through dead ends and red herrings, but she eventually arrives in Canada with her friends in tow (Drew, John Early’s Elliott, and Meredith Hagner’s Portia), discovering that Chantal (Clare McNulty) hadn’t so much disappeared as deliberately gone off the grid. A disaffected over-privileged New Yorker herself, Chantal blew up her life in the fallout of a bad breakup with a married man. While Dory may have originally seen herself in Chantal, wondering if anyone would worry if she went missing, by the first season’s conclusion Dory realized just how much they had in common. Out of boredom, Chantal sent her family into a frenzy worrying that she was dead; Dory destroyed her job, her relationships, and ultimately drew her friends into a crisis that led to them killing a man (Ron Livingston) partly in self-defense. That moment – Dory’s realization of just how far through the looking glass she’s gone – is where the second season picks up.
Superficially, the series has a lot in common with HBO’s Bored to Death - its Brooklyn setting, its aching empathy for victims and perpetrators, and of course its mystery format. However, Search Party has much more in common with the last show to completely reinvent detective noir on TV: Veronica Mars. As in that series, the characters on Search Party carry with them the trauma of episodes past. A great deal of season 2 (or at least the four episodes made available to critics) has the characters grappling with the fallout of the first season, not just logistically, but emotionally. In many ways, the second season has shifted the series into a related noir genre – the crime thriller. The walls are closing in fast on Dory, Elliott, Portia, and Drew, though only Dory seems willing to acknowledge it. It is of a kind with another recent TBS series, People of Earth, both of which take bold tonal chances that would make them a poor fit for TBS a few years ago (when Cougar Town was the quintessential TBS sitcom). Search Party can be riotously funny at times, but most of its scenes skate right on the edge of laugh-out-loud and cry-with-recognition. The building tension of this season can make it hard to even breathe during many scenes.
A major B-story in the first season had Elliott demand that a journalist friend (The Mayor’s Brandon Micheal Hall) write about Elliott’s nonsensical vanity charity, and in the process revealing that the childhood cancer that supposedly drove Elliott’s beneficence was in fact a complete fabrication. As Elliott explained to Portia when she demanded to know why her best friend has been lying to her, “Not just you. I was lying to everyone, all of the time.” This reveal has proved to be a vital element of this new season – almost immediately, Elliott is helping his friends get their lies in order so that the death of Ron Livingston’s Keith can “not have happened.” He plays the part of camp counselor, encouraging everyone to keep a positive attitude and generously praising their ability to compartmentalize while they cover their tracks in Canada. Once back in New York, though, his attempts to pretend that everything’s fine (while he works on a book about his experience as a liar) take their toll – his hair is falling out, he’s developing rashes, and he cannot put words to page. Dory is suffering from traumatic flashbacks and cannot escape the material fallout from what happened. The central cast’s choices are increasingly frantic and ill-considered as they discover themselve unable to move on.
Alia Shawkat’s central performance as Dory is stellar. Since at least the fourth season of Arrested Development, it’s been clear that Shawkat can carry a series, and Search Party lets her stretch. The second season opens on the same shot that closes the first season: Shawkat’s horrified face as she looks at herself in the mirror and confronts what she’s become. As fans of Arrested Development know, she plays a liar well, and she uses the subtlest adjustments in her expression to create a calm façade over her panic. One scene in particular stays on her face as she walks out of a bar, moving from self-assuredness to freaking out over the course of twenty seconds. The show’s other standout performance (though truthfully, it’s packed with great ones) is John Early as Elliott. Early plays a character that feels authentic and real and somewhat new to television. Elliott’s kind of sociopathic deceit is masked by vulnerability such that one never expects that he’s lying, but it’s never a surprise that he is. He moves quickly – where Shawkat’s Dory is about subtle transitions, Early’s Elliott changes on a dime, speeding through personalities and lies too fast to keep up with. He’s been appearing regularly on TV and in film since 2011, but Search Party should demonstrate how much more he can do.
Many of the show’s characters feel distinct to their gentrifying Brooklyn subculture. Like series co-creators (along with Michael Showalter, who has a small role on the series) Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers’s 2014 movie Fort Tilden, Search Party’s Brooklyn is impossible to navigate and full of surprises, including a cult-y jewelry store that feels at home both in present-day Brooklyn and in a Dashiell Hammett story. Between this and HBO’s High Maintenance (which returns in January and shares several cast and crew members with Search Party), trust fund kids wasting their days are better represented on television now than in Girls’s heyday (“I just miss when my problems were about nothing,” Dory tells her friends). When the gang needs a car to get up to Canada, where else can they go but Dory’s wealthy boss, Christine Taylor, playing a pill-popping housewife whose estranged husband is about to cut her off? When Drew needs an escape plan, he applies to work at the Shanghai branch of the finance firm where he interns for free. Portia frequently gets her friends out of a jam because she has a small role on a cop show (playing a Latina character, of all things), and men who watch the show feel comfortable sexually harassing her in public – it clearly grinds her down, but she’s relieved to be able to use it to her advantage when she can. All of the series’s choices are specific to the world of Brooklyn residents in their 20s who don’t have to worry about money but cannot find satisfaction, and this is one of its greatest strengths.
Search Party is an uncomfortable show to watch. The central four characters (and Chantal, who has more of a presence this season) hurt each other without thinking about it, and must now work closely to escape the consequences of their actions. The show is often very funny (particularly John Early and Meredith Hagner, who occasionally function as Shakespearean comic relief), but it is more often troubling and upsetting. Dory in particular is sent through the ringer: the events of Search Party test her sense of self more than anything in her life has before. If the second season so far is any indication, she may escape with her life and practical freedom, but she will continue feeling the traumatic fallout of what’s happened and what she’s done. Addressing his publishing team (including Early’s comedy partner Kate Berlant), Elliott explains that his memoir will “give a voice to the many complicated liars out there.” It’s played as a joke (and it’s very funny in context), but this is exactly what Search Party has done. Through Elliott, Portia, Drew, Chantal, and perhaps especially Dory, the show presents a cast of complicated liars, all of whom feel too far gone to start telling the truth. Though the audience may not have killed anyone (“For all we know, most of our friends could have done this. Most people are private about taboos in our culture,” Portia insists), we may be able to see in ourselves the way our own lies spiral out of control. In this way, though Search Party feels entirely modern and millennium, it is still, at its heart, true to its genre. All the best noirs are about – and for – the many complicated liars out there.
Season 2 of Search Party debuts on TBS this Sunday at 10:00pm.
Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout living in Riverside, California. He is also the writer of the webseries Doing Good.