Alia Shawkat's new show is what Girls might be like if Lena Dunham watched Chinatown or The Searchers. So, y'know, that old story.
The trailers for Search Party pitch it as a wacky comedy, but it's about as laugh-out-loud as Breaking Bad. The few laughs you get come from blacker-than-black comedy, and the rapidly dawning sense that everyone on this show is horrible.
Dory (Alia Shawkat) is maybe the least horrible of the bunch, surrounded as she is by a narcissistic compulsive liar (John Early gleefully playing the baby-faced not-quite-villain), a vain, "racially ambiguous" actress (Meredith Hagner) and a manipulative, infantile boyfriend (John Reynolds). But Dory's not exactly stable, as she finds when a curiosity about a missing college acquaintance spirals into an outright obsession. As she dives deeper into a mystery involving a cult, a private detective and grisly murders to keep secrets safe, the desperate need to find this girl she hardly knew starts to undo her, like John Wayne's Civil War vet in John Ford's The Searchers. Her ex-boyfriend Julian (Brandon Michael Hall), probably the only emotionally capable person in her life, asks Dory what she's getting out of this, and at the time, it feels dismissive and unhelpful. As the search for Chantal drags on, and Dory's paranoia begins to escalate, you see that Julian was right to ask that; Dory's hunt for Chantal quickly proves to have little to do with the missing woman, and everything to do with Dory's lack of direction or identity.
I don't feel like I can properly talk about Search Party without discussing it's unsettling end, so be warned:
~~~~~~~~~HERE THERE BE SPOILERS~~~~~~~~~
By the tenth and final episode, Dory's conspiracy theory imagines Chantal as a runaway from the cult that impregnated her, as a morally ambiguous private detective, Keith (Ron Livingston) chases them both across the Canadian border. Paranoid to the point of delusion, Dory and her boyfriend kill Keith in a sort-of-kind-of moment of self-defence, just as Chantal comes home.
As Keith's blood seeps out from under a cupboard door, Chantal chats genially with her former college acquaintances, talking about her disappearance as 'a social media break', and a chance to really 'find herself'. She has no idea about any cult, and the sonogram that led Dory to believe that Chantal was pregnant is as much a mystery to Chantal as to everyone else. Dory and Drew look over at the cupboard holding Keith's dead body, as they realise that they'd imagined this whole conspiracy.
Like I said earlier, this is black comedy at its very bleakest. I can't think of another ending that has so unsettled me like this did; my gut sank along with Dory, as we realised how far into delusion she (and her friends) had gone. I was so disturbed that I couldn't get to sleep for hours afterwards, which usually isn't an issue for me. For all that Dory and her friends are horrible, they felt horrible in very real ways, and the (fatal!) mistakes they made felt even more serious for that.
I can't recommend Search Party as an easy watch, and it's certainly not the goofy comedy it's pitched as, but it's so effective as a mystery and a human drama that I want you to watch. And then come talk to me about it, because I am so keen to talk this out.
UPDATE: I've heard that a second season of Search Party has been greenlit, which is cool and all, but I think the story's better left where it ended. I'd prefer they left some questions unanswered, and I'm not sure how they'll repeat the magic of the first season without imitating it or completely abandoning the show's premise. If nothing else, I hope Dory and Drew have broken up, because he is...