TV Review: Search Party

So I originally planned to review this season by season as it came about, but that didn’t work out, and then I planned to review it as a whole once the fifth and final season dropped but I couldn’t wait so here we have it a mostly complete, sure to be updated review of the whole Search Party show. I’ll talk about the show overall and then I’ll drop a breakdown, with ratings of each season.

First off, before we move on I’ll do a quick info dump of all the boring essentials, Search Party premiered on TBS back in November 21st 2016, with the third and all subsequent seasons being aired on WarnerMedia’s streaming service HBO Max. Search Party is a dark comedy thriller series, which was created by Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers (both known for writing and directing the 2014 movie Fort Tilden) as well Michael Showalter (who is known for co-creating the Wet Hot American Summer franchise). 

The show stars Alia Shawkat, as Dory Sief, the main character, John Reynolds as her whiny and passive-aggressive boyfriend Drew Gardner, John Early as the flamboyant liar, Elliot Goss, and Meredith Hagner as the sweet but flighty actress Portia Davenport. Rounding off the main cast is Brandon Micheal Hall who plays Julian Marcus, Dory’s ex boyfriend and a journalist with a particularly blunt nature which sets him at odds with the larger than life personalities present in the show. The show is set mainly in New York City, and focuses on the above group of people, who become embroiled in the search for Chantal Witherbottom, a college acquaintance, who has gone missing. 

Okay, so first off, I love Alia Shawkat, she is absolute perfection in everything she’s in, so I knew going in I would enjoy this. She plays Dory with an incredible amount of depth, blending in a sincere sweetness, with a sense of adriftness common to twentysomethings, where they are just going through the motions and don’t really know what’s going to happen or where they are going. It plays really well and explains why she gets so involved in the search for the missing Chantal, who she admits was an acquaintance at best. She feels believable and you get drawn in by her insecurity and awkwardness.

I feel like more and more television seems determined to give us characters who you really have to work to like, and the flamboyant, over the top nature of Elliot very much embodies that, he has moments of depth and realness, but vastly overwhelmed by a deliberate focus on surface level concerns as well as his own needs and wants. He seems fake, and John Early portrays that all perfectly while still as I mentioned above giving us enough moments to slowly care for the character. He’s also a source of some of the funniest moments in the show overall. 

I wasn’t too sure about Drew initially, he felt petulant, entitled and honestly without any real charm or draw as a character, and that’s not just because he took the frankly awesome Dory for granted. He was designed to be a little underwhelming and honestly a little milquetoast. But he possesses a common sense as well a practicality and sense of perspective which makes him invaluable as things escalate. I also like how being pushed out of his comfort zone actually caused him to grow as a person. He was still far from perfect but he also became a critical part of why the show worked, particularly as things escalated. You really have to applaud John Reynolds for his ability to play such a nuanced and not always likeable character. 

Likewise Portia, I do not think they have a truly bad or malicious bone in their body. They are decidedly sweet and soft for the most part and yet they are rich and entitled and don’t seem to understand the privilege they wield. It’s a trait shared by Elliot, both of whom seem never to have been told the word no. I do love her though. She’s a little airheaded and yet in that she’s pure and so you just want to give her a hug. Meredith Hagner did well with the character, making her just the right amount of everything so that she can be all at once comic relief, moral core and a foil for the activities the gang need to do as the story progresses. 

So what did I think of the show overall, I honestly loved it. I don’t think any season outpaced the first in terms of quality but that’s mostly because of the relative simplicity of the first season. It’s a mystery and it unwinds, with a nice pace, balancing an off-beat humour with a genuine intrigue. I found myself invested in the disappearance of this random girl I’d never met and I got swept up in Dory’s pursuit of the truth. It was believable too, because as I referenced above, she’s at a crossroads in her life, uncertain where to go or what to do and so she latches on to this with both arms because it’s something…anything to help her escape from a life she’s less than happy with.

I mentioned the humour, and I think that’s what really sets this show apart. It has an awkward, offbeat and sometimes cringey sense of humour that feels real and gives it a distinct personality. A lot of this comes from the fact that the characters are all to one extent or another larger than life. I mean we discover that Elliot is a compulsive liar who has apparently been lying about a childhood bout of cancer seemingly just for the attention and the need to feel special that such a backstory might bring. It’s not funny in a haha sense, but more in the extreme sort of way that drives the whole show. 

But yeah, the first season despite its twists and turns is relatively simple, they search for someone and they find someone. Oh and before we go on *SPOILERS* but the subsequent seasons get considerably more complicated as a result of the murder and cover up that caps off the first season. This is by no means a bad thing, the added complexity adds more depth to the show and makes the later seasons more interesting but there’s something to be said for the simplicity of the first season. 

Overall I would rate the show highly, it’s funny but knows when to reach for some drama and intensity. It gives us a breadth of characters, not all of whom are likeable but who serve the plot well and even some of those unlikeable characters begin to grow on you as you watch the show. There are people who seem like they don’t do much at all, for example Christine Taylor, who plays Dory’s boss Gail but they come into play in later episodes even if it’s just in small ways. Also I couldn’t find a way to insert this naturally but R. L. Stine is featured in this show, as himself no less. They also had Charles Rogers star as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Patricia R. Floyd as Maya Angelou. Since the reasons behind that are in season four which is far more recent I will not spoil why exactly they are featured. You’ll just need to check that out for yourself but I felt it was worth a note. 

Season 1

Okay so I’ve touched on it above but what did I think of Season 1 of Search Party? I enjoyed it immensely. I think I was first introduced to the show via an unskippable ad on YouTube if I remember correctly and despite the shaky beginnings of being presented in the most annoying fashion possible I was intrigued by the premise and was hooked by the fact that Alia Shawkat was in it. Okay, so as I’ve said above this show has an offbeat feel to it, and I can totally get that it doesn’t appeal to everyone, for example Tori B Bearly just couldn’t get into it but I was taken in by the millennial misadventures and the New York drama. It’s a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Existing in a state of heightened reality, where some people are over the top and that works. I cannot imagine the core characters being friends in real life and yet their disparity in personality, social class, outlook and temperament are what make the narrative work so well. The central drama, the mysterious disappearance of Chantal Witherbottom is at its core engaging enough to sustain a full season, especially with the twists and turns, the red herrings and I like that in the end it turned out to be something stupid. It wasn’t some elaborate conspiracy, it was just dumb and messy. I give the first season a 4/5 as it’s a solid show overall with show fundamental awkwardness and characters that take some time to grow on you. 

Season 2

Season 2 picks off where the first season ended, dealing with the aftermath of the anticlimax with Chantal and the accidental murder of Keith. It’s at moments like this where the extreme personalities of the main characters work best. I mean extreme situations practically require extreme people. I also like that no one really knows what to do. After Keith’s death everyone digs deep and becomes not particularly better or worse. They don’t suddenly come together, and in fact a lot of the entertainment comes from them falling apart. I also like that they aren’t all good or all bad. Most of the main characters by the second season are complicit in a murder and they deal it perhaps not true to life, but certainly true to character. I do feel that season 2 didn’t quite capture the same magic of the first season. It felt very much like trying to return to form, which is good but with the grizzly undertone of the murder it felt strained. And strained is the word, some of the best scenes of this season are how each character reacts to the pressure of the murder and having to cover it up. Particular highlights of this season are Dory, who deeply internalised her trauma until she begins to crack which leads to some exciting events in the next season. And Portia, whose delicate nature is at odds with the horror of what happened in Montreal, is equally barely keeping it together. The pleasant mask she wears to cover up her own insecurities is barely in place throughout this season. I think I’ll give this season a 3/5 because there’s a lot to love about this season but it’s not as good as it could have been.

Season 3

Okay now I feel that perhaps I was a little unkind about season 2, it was solid, has some incredibly acting and it dealt with a group of normal people actually dealing with a murder. The guilt and shame combating their own desire for self protecting and unwillingness to deal with the consequences for their actions. Season 3 forces them to deal with their actions  it has Drew and Dory on trial for the murder of Keith. It had Alia Shawkat in a positively gorgeous red dress. It is striking and serves to symbolise her changes throughout the past few seasons. How despite the horror and the trauma and guilt and pain, she has grown stronger. I like the transformation, outside me liking Shawkat, I found that I cared about Dory and understood the ennui of the entrenched twenty something that she was experiencing at the start of the show. I also like that Search Party changes things up each season, making it feel like a natural progression. In season 1 things are light and relatively uncomplicated, it opens on brunch for god sake. And then Dory gets obsessed with solving a mystery but overall it’s fun and has a sort of whimsy to it. Then season 2 gets darker, it’s grittier and feels more like a drama or a thriller. Characters are actually processing what they’ve been through and trying to come to terms with what that means. And now in season 3 it’s a court drama, it has an intensity along the same vein as the 2nd season but more focused as their goal goes from avoiding anyone finding out about their crime, to trying to avoid going to jail for it. Something else I liked is that while all of the cast could be considered selfish or unpleasant in one way or another. And I feel like that’s by design. Dory was the most likeable. She was the nice one and yet her actions and reactions, her slow decline into a genuine sinner is something to behold. I said above that I was already a fan of Alia Shawkat before but I have a hard time believing that anyone could watch this show and this season in particular without being impressed with her incredible skill, her subtle choices which make for a truly amazing performance. I think I’ll give this season a 4/5.

Season 4

Finally we are at the fourth season, which shifts from legal drama to serial killer territory and has Dory who beat the murder charges in the last season instead imprisoned by Chip (played by Cole Escola) who shaves her head and binds her to a chair. He has become obsessed with her over the previous season and kidnapped her. It’s dark and heavy, the relative lightheartedness of the first season is long behind it, and yet if you’ve watched everything up to this point, it flows naturally, obviously heightened for reality, but nothing feels like a leap and all the actions come from the characters and their believable reactions to the plot. 

I would also like to add that if you’ve watched everything up till now, you know the main characters aren’t heroes, they are not even the good guys in their own narrative. They are selfish and unkind at times, they are desperate and willing to sacrifice others for their own safety and security and yet you feel connected to them and are invested in their story. When I first started watching I would not have imagined liking Drew and I still don’t, but I’m investing in him. His attempts at a romance to escape from his problems while ill advised feel real and believable and you can’t help but admire the bare faced cheek or Elliot and Portia trying to capitalise on their notoriety earned across the past couple of seasons. I cannot honestly pick a stand out in this season, each character holds up surprisingly well but if I were pressed I would say that the dark inner core that Dory discovers is well portrayed and makes this season so impressive, so it more than earns a 5/5

Overall

So that’s what I thought of the four seasons to date of Search Party. The fifth and final season is due to debut in January 2022 and I will update my thoughts in the future. I’ve tried to cover my opinion without excessive spoilers. I may update this review again a year or two after the final season has dropped to include more specific analysis once the window to rightfully complain about spoilers has passed. Overall I think Search Party as a whole earns a solid 4/5 and I urge you to check it out now.

First Published on: https://offtherecordblog.org/


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