tv review

Search Party Is Back, and Its Knives Are Out

Do not mess with Alia Shawkat in the new season of Search Party. Photo: Jon Pack/HBO Max

When Search Party debuted on TBS in late 2016, its genre-fluid exploration of a missing person’s case and millennial culture proved both astute and hilarious. Sometimes I still giggle when I think about the alumni of an NYU a cappella group earnestly singing a slowed-down cover of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You Been Gone” at a candlelight vigil for gone girl Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty). Then I think about John Early, as the hypernarcissistic Elliott Goss, observing that performance and declaring, “This is not okay,” and I giggle even harder.

Nearly four years later, the third season of Search Party, co-created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter, has arrived in its new location. It’s now on HBO Max, and in certain ways, it feels like it’s been beamed there from another planet, another galaxy, and another era that took place eons ago. So many life and world events have transpired since season one that the idea of reuniting with Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat) and her three flawed friends, Drew (John Reynolds), Portia (Meredith Hagner), and the aforementioned Elliott, makes the prospect of revisiting Search Party seem almost outmoded. Almost.

Against what initially seem like long odds given that it was filmed two years ago, the third season of Search Party not only finds its satirical groove but manages to find a measure of currency by focusing on how a pair of white, privileged millennials wind their way through the justice system when they go on trial for murder. The season is also a study in dishonesty and the many ways in which grown adults tell lies about who they are. In a lot of films and TV shows about young New Yorkers, the main characters are still trying to figure out who they are. In Search Party, they’re trying to figure out which version of themselves is most advantageous to be.

These ten episodes pick up where season two left off in 2017, which means some recap reading may be required in order to get fully back up to speed. Here’s the short version: After Dory’s season-one fixation on tracking down college acquaintance Chantal led her into an affair with private detective Keith Powell (Ron Livingston), season two focused on the aftermath of the semi-accidental murder of Keith by Drew and Dory, who covered up the killing with help from Portia and Elliott. At the end of that season, Dory shoved April (Phoebe Tyers), a neighbor threatening to expose their guilt, off of a ferry, where she presumably drowned. Shortly thereafter, Dory was taken into custody in connection with Keith’s death.

As season three begins, Dory’s role in April’s death remains a secret only she knows. But as she waits to be properly charged by the cops, she is already nervous that her culpability will be exposed on all fronts. As she’s wrestling with all those feelings, she’s recognized by Mel Banina (Hallie Haas), an old high school acquaintance who is apparently a regular at this particular precinct. “Girl, look at us: We made it,” Mel Banina says, waving her cuffed hands to celebrate their “success” as grown ladies living in the Big Apple. When Dory says she hopes that Mel won’t face a long sentence for breaking a toilet at her ex-boyfriend’s bar, Mel notes that her uncle is a judge, so she’ll “probably be out in, like, an hour if it’s like last time.”

That short scene is Search Party season three in a nutshell: characters saying ridiculous things non-ironically, which of course registers as ironic, and white, privileged women (and some men) displaying their belief that they can get away with (literal) murder because they know how to play a system that’s already rigged in their favor.

The once-compassionate Dory, who is tried together with Drew, fully comes over to the dark side this season. She doesn’t just attempt to manipulate public opinion — in one episode, she plays every innocent-victim card in the deck, weeping in her mother’s arms during a nationally televised interview — she completely convinces herself that she is innocent, even as she’s plagued by flashes of her misdeeds. Shawkat is a natural at shifting between such emotional extremes. In the finale, she delivers a courtroom monologue that’s simply breathtaking in its simultaneous release of emotion and flabbergasting amount of denial.

That trial acts as the narrative foundation of the third season and allows for some inspired comedic performances and wonderfully absurd running gags. Tony nominee and former NCIS star Shalita Grant is a riot as Cassidy, Dory’s defense attorney, who has a law degree but has never defended a client professionally in her life. Grant plays her as a coddled, vapid, yet somehow occasionally effective lawyer who speaks with so much vocal fry she makes Kim Kardashian sound like Dame Judy Dench. Michaela Watkins as the prosecutor — “Did your grandfather invent fish sticks as you’ve stated numerous times?” she shouts pointedly at Elliott when he takes the stand — and Louie Anderson as Drew’s barely functioning attorney are both terrific too. (“Do you ever have one of those days?” Anderson’s character asks the jury after completely forgetting Drew’s name.) On the other hand, there are a lot of side plots, and not all of them feel necessary. Elliott’s wedding to Marc (Jeffery Self) provides the centerpiece for a very funny episode, but Portia’s foray into Christianity and the attempt to continue keeping Chantal in the story by having her start her own business don’t fully pay off.

As part of her strategy, Watkins’s prosecutor tries to paint Dory and Drew as symbols of their generation, referring to them in her opening statement as “a couple of millennials looking for a thrill kill” and warning the jury that if they acquit they are “letting an entire generation off.” Moments like that make it easy to view Search Party as a commentary on everyone born between Generations X and Z. But a closer read reveals that what the series is really indicting is phoniness and deceit. Dory & Co., as individuals whose identities have been formed during the era of influencers and social-media branding, may be accustomed to fibbing. But people of all ages on Search Party are just as guilty of the same sin.

“I’m not used to playing myself,” Portia says, again, without recognizing the irony, when she prepares for her turn on the witness stand. Look around, at the people on this show and in the real world in 2020. She’s hardly the only one.

Search Party Is Back, and Its Knives Are Out