‘Search Party’ Review: Alia Shawkat Is a Millennial Miss Marple in a Cynical World

     November 21, 2016

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We’ve entered into an era of half-hour cable series that aren’t really comedies, but aren’t dramas, either. They’re weird, low-key funny, awkward sad, but ultimately engrossing — think Girls and Looking from HBO, Better Things and Atlanta from FX, and even Blunt Talk from Starz (although it is more overtly comedic than the others). But it is TBS, which has long been a home for sitcom reruns, that has been producing some of the most subversive half-hour TV content of late, including the alien abduction-focused People of Earth and the undefinable Angie Tribeca. But none have come together as well as its latest series, Search Party.

In Search Party (created by weird-comedy veteran Michael Showalter, alongside Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers), a group of Millennials — don’t tune out yet — get embroiled in the disappearance of a former classmate. Search Party has a wicked, sly sense of humor that augments each group member’s navel-gazing in a way that’s both satirical and sincere (it’s also reminiscent to People of Earth, which both makes fun of and lovingly embraces conspiracy theorists). But at its core Search Party has a more serious desire to find meaning and be thought of as meaningful, even if it ultimately lands in a deeply cynical place.

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Image via TBS

Search Party’s main focus is Alia Shawkat’s Dory, who is adrift until she starts becoming obsessed with solving the mystery of Chantal, a college acquaintance who Dory sees and briefly pursues after the world thinks Chantal is dead. Bolstered by a desire to want to help, Dory drags her sweet but clueless boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds), and her self-absorbed cohorts Portia (Meredith Hagner) and Elliott (John Early) into an increasingly bizarre set of circumstances in the hopes of giving Chantal’s family proof that she is still alive.

Search Party would have made for a good movie, and it plays like one if you binge its 10 short episodes in one sitting (each one runs about 20 minutes). TBS, which will make the entire series available a week after it premieres, seems to agree. Its structure starts out like a Millenial Miss Marple, as Dory (in frumpy coats and fantastically untamed curls) involves herself in the business of others in uncomfortable but ultimately triumphant ways. She partners up with a P.I., Keith (Ron Livingston), and starts to do real investigative work, finding actual clues to what might have happened to Chantal. There are fits and starts along the way, but the pieces seem to connect into a dangerous conspiracy.

Meanwhile, the personal lives of the central quartet are in free-fall. Drew, who is against the idea to try and find Chantal from the start, becomes paranoid that Dory is cheating on him with her ex (Brandon Micheal Hall, whose character’s blunt, flat, confrontational manner feels at odds with the series’ tone). Portia and Elliott also have to face some of their biggest fears — about careers, personal insecurities, and being discovered as frauds — although they prove loyal friends in Dory’s quest for the truth. And while the show does lampoon its characters’ narcissism and delusions of grandeur fueled by pop culture buzz-speak, the four also really come into their own over the course of the first season with well-defined arcs.

And yet, the season ends with a desperate act that complicates its future. Though the reveals that viewers are waiting for come to pass (in deeply sardonic fashion), the series also proves the adage about it being the journey rather than the destination. Everything that Dory & Co. experience in Search Party is instigated by its central mystery, but each is also wholly its own story. It almost feels New Wave-y in how the group flits from one experience to the next organically, only briefly having to confront the deeper truths before them. One line from Elliott sums everything up: “I suffered like … all morning, but I feel like I know so much more about myself now.”

Rating: ★★★★ Very good

Search Party premieres with back-to-back episodes Monday, November 21st on TBS, and will continue each night through its conclusion on Friday, November 25th.

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