Search Party

2 out of 5

Created by: Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter

covers season 1

Wow, what an amazing dark comedy.  Uncomfortably bleak and real at every opportunity, casting disconcertingly recognizable millenials – with all their narcissism, aimlessness, disconnections – in a backwards puzzle box format (as in purposefully showing that there’s less going on with each layer removed) that serves as a laugh-at-yourself reminder of our current state of confusion.

Wow, what a completely shitty concept to extend to a TV show.

There’s been plenty of discussion lately – having added my own billion cents into that discussion – regarding the various endpoints of the current TV revolution; how the streaming model, and different venues through which we consume media, have both opened us up to a ton of great choices and then obviously cluttered those choices with variations that take advantage of the opportunities without really knowing why.  Having big-screen themes explored over a season instead of 90 minutes is great; having your indie film that would be just fine at an hour and change expanded to 5 hours (10 half hour episodes): not so great.

Search Party was hyped as the Slacker version of Nancy Drew; the old school drawn promotional art certainly added to that, and we seemed to jump into our mystery, as girl-without-a-cause Dory (Alia Shawkat) tweaks on the local stirrings of a missing several steps removed college acquaintance of hers, Chantal (Clare McNulty).  She tries to incite interest from her circle of friends – humdrum boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds),  perpetual center of attention Drew (Elliot Goss), and reminds-you-she’s-an-actress-at-every-opportunity Portia (Meredith Hagner) – who flutter through pretend support and half-aware reminders that none of them really knew Chantal, but Dory presses on, very keenly in need of a point to keep her going.

And that’s what Search Party ends up harping on for its season: this lack of point.  At times, this is remarkably clever.  The way every single thing seems to suggest to Dory that there’s no mystery and yet she presses on is both an incredibly powerful and funny concept, and it really rides the dark comedy horse in select moments, especially the ending, which is really what makes me feel like this would’ve been better off with a lot of the non-ending cut out.  Because outside of those moments the series half-assed wants us to be interested in its characters but gives us no compelling reason to.  It’s half-interested in poking fun at their hang-ups or obsession, and then half-half-interested in showing us that there are humans underneath…  But no, I’m just kidding, they’re totally vacant and full of themselves.  There’s a sincerity in the portrayals that somehow prevents this from being annoying, but it also means there’s no real reason to spend time with these people.  Amidst all of those half-intentions there’s an iota of soul-searching for Dory, who occasionally breaks into tears when realizing she can’t really justify what she’s doing.  Again, this is potentially powerful, but the writing just skips right past it, just pausing long enough to show it cares.  If any of this shoulder-shrug type approach ended up being necessary to the theme, we could call it meta, but it just ends up as superficial details.  Meaning: yes, it supports Search Party’s general mood, but in a completely unnecessary fashion.

One potential solution would have been to set us more fully behind Dory’s point of view, ably portrayed by Shawkat, who’s proven to do well with these facile, fallible character types post her defining Arrested Development work.  But though Dory is definitely given the majority of screen time, I wouldn’t say Search Party is her story.  She just happens to be there, with the camera pointing at her, the creators giggling at their forced combination of unfunny funny and pathos.

If it’s not clear amongst this bashing, the show is pretty watchable.  It never crosses the line into obnoxious, and every now and then there’s a reminder of the intelligent concepts that bred this idea.  But it should never have been a TV show, or the story should have been fluffed much more to support that runtime.  As is, Search Party wants us to get on board for ten episodes of empty characters and very little plot, all the while kicking apart and semblance of the mystery it hints at in its opening episode.