Sometimes what starts as a glorious binge ends as the dutiful act of a completist. Such was my journey with Search Party, a unique and extremely interesting series that started life on TBS before migrating to HBO Max. Indiscriminately mixing elements of comedy and drama, it’s a series that undergoes numerous jarring tonal shifts over its 40 vibrant episodes, and while several stretches are quite compelling, there’s a sense of diminishing returns as the series progresses.
Set largely in New York City, Search Party chronicles the adventures of Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat), an aimless NYU grad trying to find her way in life. Dory is comfortable, if perhaps complacent, in her long-term relationship with the agreeable, conflict-averse Drew Gardner (John Reynolds), and she makes do as an assistant for a vacuous rich lady named Gail (Christine Taylor). But really, she hasn’t found her place in the world: a career, a mission, a passion. When an old college acquaintance named Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty) goes missing, Dory quickly becomes obsessed with the mystery — not because she was close friends with Chantal, but because Chantal made almost no impression on her, and she’s afraid she may be similarly nebulous. Dory’s quest to find Chantal gradually ropes in Drew, along with their two privileged friends, Elliot Goss (John Early) and Portia Davenport (Meredith Hagner), who are so obliviously self-absorbed they don’t immediately notice that Dory’s “heroic” search is similarly selfish. Her search is, in fact, a search for herself, and as the investigation escalates — in increasingly out-of-control fashion — she doesn’t end up liking what she finds.
Search Party hits the ground running in season one with a successful mix of ensemble antics, amateur detective work, and timely existentialism, as Dory and her friends, virtually tripping over their own privilege and disinterest, labor to locate their missing “friend.” Shawkat and Reynolds bring flaky, humorous accessibility to their awkward partnership, providing a sympathetic dynamic for their narcissistic companions to play against. Dory’s search for Chantal — basically a MacGuffin, at first — is a search for personal meaning, an inflated quest narrative that the timid Drew and the vain Elliott and Portia reluctantly facilitate. At times, I even got Lodge 49ish vibes from Search Party (high praise, in my book), as the investigation attains myth-like resonance, the group’s path careening through mysterious, oddball corners of the city. Shawkat’s quiet, unique voice centers the narrative nicely, while Reynolds is hilarious as the well meaning but ineffectual Drew. Meanwhile, Early and Hagner quickly prove flashy scene-stealers as ludicrous, cynical foils to Dory’s ill-fated act of charity. Early’s performance as the flamboyant, pathologically lying Elliott is a persistent spark of comic energy, while Hagner shines as the vain, superficial Portia, an aspiring actress. Throughout much of the first season, which also features memorable guest turns from the likes of Ron Livingston and Parker Posey, I was fully on board for their clumsy search party and hopeful that future seasons would present them with esoteric new mysteries to solve.
Unfortunately, a major plot twist late in season one drastically redefines the show, in ways I wasn’t expecting — but frankly wasn’t wanting. Indeed, the later seasons of Search Party almost veer into meta territory, as a subtle show about the search for meaning morphs into a frenetic show constantly redefining its own meaning. Season two in particular pushes the group into Breaking Bad territory as its characters haplessly try to cover up earlier, accidental misdeeds, and season three spins the group’s plight into a Trump Era satire of the cult of personality. Unfortunately, the early episodes’ quirky charm fades steadily, as escalating tight spots and unlikely plot twists thrust the group into more frantic and outrageous places, constantly attempting to outdo itself. By the end of the fourth season, which ramps up a particularly shrill and implausible new development, my enthusiasm for the series had waned considerably.
That isn’t to say I won’t still tune in for season five, because Search Party still has numerous attributes. While later seasons consistently went places I didn’t necessarily want them to go, I never lost my admiration for the show’s exploratory restlessness, and the ensemble of Shawkat, Reynolds, Early, and Hagner — which have a well-oiled, winning chemistry — is more than enough to hold my allegiance. But there’s also mere curiosity; the show’s unpredictability verges on the experimental, and I’d rather forgive an experiment that doesn’t always work than reward a formula that doesn’t ever challenge. Search Party began as the show I needed, and while it subsequently devolved into a show I merely wanted, I definitely still want it: it’s got that certain something.