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Search Party’s Elliott Is the Limit Case of the ‘Gay BFF’

Photo: Jon Pack/HBO

He’s sassy and vapid and a hoot to be around. He has a clear sense of style and a near-encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture. Quick with zingers and even quicker with barbs, he’s not one to be crossed. Laying out the key characteristics of a “gay best friend” on television can further stress just how one-dimensional such a character can feel on the page. And while the likes of Jack McFarland (Will & Grace), Marc St. James (Ugly Betty), Mickey Dean (The Comeback), and Stanford Blatch (Sex and the City) clearly broke the mold even as they were enshrining it, more- recent comedies have gone further.

Shows like Difficult People, Happy Endings, and Sex Education have been eagerly reshaping what a “gay (male) best friend” can look like on the small screen, giving characters like Billy Epstein, Titus Andromedon, and Eric Effiong complex inner lives that refuse to be collapsed into the trope they nevertheless call forth. But no show has come close to dissecting the gay BFF so expertly as Search Party. The HBO Max series references the recognizable template as a way to skewer that kind of characterization while also unearthing the darker undertones of such stereotyping. Elliott Goss (John Early), who’s described as “gay, energetic and a self-diagnosed narcissist” in the show’s pilot script, is the limit case of the gay BFF, all vapid privilege wrapped up in hilarious absurdity, the kind who’d happily take sponsorships from corporations eager to rebrand themselves as LGBTQ-friendly to fund his wedding (#1point2milliondollarwedding), whose theme is “attention.” (“We do love attention,” he beams.)

Elliott’s vanity, his self-absorption, his laziness — his privilege, even — become not mere punchlines (though they do elicit plenty of laughs) but opportunities to show how tragic and insidious this figure can be. When we first meet him (at brunch, naturally), he’s in the middle of an anecdote that’s played for laughs even when it’s also clearly quite disturbing. “So Kristine runs over to us with shards of glass still in her hair,” he says in mock exasperation, “and is all like, ‘Help me flip my car back over!’ And we were like … ‘No, call the police!’” It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, but it reveals a lot about Elliott’s own priorities. We never do hear what happened with Kristine and her upended car, but it sets Elliott’s flippant indifference as key to his self-image. He’s turned the encounter into a brunch anecdote made all the funnier by Early’s delivery, where his galling impatience is more important than whatever freak accident poor Kristine got into. His meanness isn’t sugar-coated. It’s his bitterness that often fuels his most delectable moments onscreen. And, just like those previous gay BFF characters, his meanness is put forth as his greatest — and funniest — asset.

Search Party excels at mining millennial angst for humor and horror alike, and the character of Elliott is no exception. Creators Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers tread a fine line between making us laugh at and with Elliott, who tosses off hilarious one-liners (“When are you nerds going to accept that lying is a tool?”) that encourage viewers to pause long enough to really take in what he’s positing. His outfits may be ridiculous (of a piece with, say, David Rose’s own fashion-forward choices) and his penchant for self-absorption limitless (akin to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Titus), but they’re consistently grounded in traumatic events. In this, Search Party demands we take Elliott seriously. Underneath his lies, breakdowns, and even lucid moments of self-awareness (“I don’t want to work,” he says after a stint in rehab — “Working sucks.”) is a person who carries with him layers of shame. His dilettante persona is grating and amusing in equal measure, but it is ultimately shown to be a front, a way to escape his real life. Making up stories about having been diagnosed with cancer in high school, changing his name from Eldad to Elliott, lying about going to NYU, and even hiring non-equity actors to play his wealthy parents are all of a piece with an idea gay men (and TV characters) have long championed: that arriving in New York City is a chance to reinvent and find yourself.

Moreover, Elliott taps into his charming flamboyance whenever he’s cornered. When he’s taken in for questioning at the police station, he knows his best bet is to wait for his lawyer and stall, lest he inadvertently incriminate himself or his friends further. The way he does so is to Queer Eye the detective in charge, offering up some tips about her hair and helping her change her outfit, later kiki-ing with his lawyer (Chelsea Peretti) in a way that clearly shows he’s above such petty things as being held accountable. Similarly, when he finds himself in hot water in the aptly titled cable-news show Open Fire With Charlie Reeny, where the conservative anchor (played by SNL’s Chloe Fineman) hopes to rile him up by exploiting his failed book deal, he reverts to his role as a gay clown, making a fart joke that ends up unsettling Charlie. By the time the two are sparring on air, trading politically incorrect barbs, you can see this twinkle in Elliott’s eyes. His consummate survival instinct intact, he realizes he can easily capitalize on his charm at the expense of his political beliefs.

In this, the character merely follows in the footsteps of those other famed gay BFFs who have graced the small screen before. Take the 2016 election-themed mini-episode that brought the Will & Grace cast and crew back together. Ostensibly a “get out the vote” PSA, the ten-minute video centered on Will, Grace, and Karen trying to persuade Jack to vote, playing on Jack’s vapid apolitical leanings. In the end, it’s Will’s assertion that Katy Perry is a Clinton supporter that wins him over. “Sorry, Kar, I’m with her!” he says while pointing at Will. His pop-diva standom is the only way he’s nudged into political action, a moment whose humor nevertheless underscores his privilege.

Similarly, Difficult People often toyed with Billy Epstein’s own political apathy. One of the first interactions we see him have in the pilot episode is with a well-meaning volunteer on the street who asks him if he has time for gay rights: “Gay rights? I’ve done plenty!” he snaps back. “And to diminishing returns!” Despite being painted as a liberal, Billy remains only strategically involved in political causes. When season three premiered in 2017, it opened with images of Billy and his friend Julie at a protest (“Resist!” “Impeach!” they rage) against not the many reprehensible White House policies, but a production of Sunday in the Park With George starring the cast of The Big Bang Theory.

This stereotype, of a (white) gay male character only intermittently being politically engaged, is taken up in Search Party and driven to its most monstrous endpoint. Where shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Sex Education put forth complex depictions of queer Black men, making characters like Titus Andromedon and Eric Effiong feel like refreshing new takes on the gay BFF trope, Search Party instead excavates what Elliott’s privilege affords him. He is the dark mirror of his funny predecessors. Elliott uses humor as armor and apathy as camouflage. But where those same features were premises for funny moments in these other shows that were intent on similarly upending that stereotype, Search Party revels instead in showing how they’re prime foundations on which radicalized right-wing ideas about identity politics take hold. For Elliott, politics is but an intellectual and signaling exercise, barely tied to his lived experience, something as easily interchanged as one of his many stylish hats.

The very imagery that made a character like Jack McFarland feel like a leftist fantasy is here repurposed to show instead its insidious inverse. Elliott can adopt any political position so long as it benefits him personally; his gay identity need not dictate his politics, only his success. By the time the third season ends and Elliott finds himself fiancéless and directionless, it’s no surprise he seeks refuge in weaponizing his own privilege: His is a story of survival and self-preservation. If going on television to spar with a blond anchor and radicalizing himself into a Milo Yiannopoulos-like figure is what it takes, he has no qualms about doing so.

Elliott Goss may the gay best friend’s final deconstructed form. Stripped bare of his antics and uprooted from sunnier comedic spaces, he’s here pared down to a clownish demeanor and a self-serving narcissism, a satirical figure as funny as he is terrifying.

Search Party’s Elliott Is the Limit Case of the ‘Gay BFF’