“The Mysterious Disappearance of Chantal Witherbottom”
Compared to all the profanities used in Search Party’s premiere—and they are out in full, partially-bleeped, force—the term “millennial” is really only an obscene word for anyone born before 1981. Or is it 1982? The age ranges for generations shifts every so often that it can be hard to remember if you’re Generation X or Y (a.k.a the millennial generation). I grew up thinking I was part of the latter, but I never applied the term to myself, because it hadn’t been coined yet. Looking back, I should probably be grateful it was never used to describe me, since it’s become such a loaded term. Millennials are at once what’s wrong with the world and the only hope for it, the reason elections are won and lost, and/or responsible for the ubiquity of brunch and Lena Dunham. But given just how amorphous generations can be, it’s probably best not to pin such things on any age group, especially one already so laden with student loan debt.
I bring this up because Search Party probably won’t be able to avoid the label of a “show for millennials” or a comedy about them. Since I know people older than me are the real culprits for so many of our current woes, that’s not something that will keep me from enjoying this new dark comedy. And it shouldn’t prevent anyone else from diving right into the mystery of, uh, “The Mysterious Disappearance Of Chantal Witherbottom,” the first episode in the series. (Note: TBS will air back-to-back episodes through this week, hence the double reviews.) It’s not quite an uproarious half-hour, but it does a good job of setting the stakes, as well as introducing all the self-centered twentysomethings—who really could have been born in any year, in case you need reminding of the folly of youth—who will mount the probably least effect manhunt in history.
The Chantal Witherbottom of the episode title is the “endangered adult” gone missing, whose disappearance will consume Dory’s (Alia Shawkat, in her first series lead) life. Well, it would, if Dory had much of one to begin with. As it stands, she’s an assistant to a rich woman whose only occupation seems to be buying clothes she won’t keep and making brutally astute observations about her young employee. Played with posh snideness by Christine Taylor, this beautiful, blond boss asks of Dory, “How is it you’re so good at the stuff no on else wants to do?”
That question and several more haunt Dory throughout the premiere. Series creators Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter have filled Dory’s post-grad existence with arguably more than her fair share of existential crises, but the half-hour is far from a philosophical drag. Still, it’s important that Dory realize her current job is bullshit, though, because that revelation raises the question of just why she’s so well suited to the tasks rejected or ignored by everyone else. Now, this isn’t just some cruel commentary on the work of personal assistants; it’s just that Dory’s so completely adrift that the only work she can find involves her own everyday routine. Sure, she’s picking up a wealthier, far more glamorous person’s dry cleaning, but it’s an act she’d also perform for her boyfriend, Drew (Stranger Things’ John Reynolds).
So when Dory comes across that missing poster with Chantal’s photo, she walks back to stare at a face that’s only vaguely familiar, and yet could be a reflection of her own. Dory’s quizzical expression is framed in such a way as to suggest what her own missing-person artwork would look like. It’s not clear whether she’s always been lost, or recently “vanished,” but it’s obvious she’s desperate for some direction. And, regardless of age, who isn’t? There are more non-traditional students in college than ever before, and even obtaining your degree won’t guarantee work let alone career let alone fulfillment. This shot, which is repeated at the end of the episode, has been part of TBS’ promotional materials, along with Dory’s positioning as a modern-day Nancy Drew. They’re both fitting gateways into the show, but look at the stark contrast in the images when they’re side by side. The Dory on the left is curious, but mostly confused; in the illustration on the right, however, she appears both curious and clever. She’s set herself apart from her goofy group of self-involved friends, including Drew, Portia (Meredith Hagner) and Elliott (John Early).
In addition to giving her life some meaning, finding Chantal could free Dory from her coterie of New York hipsters. There’s a sense that that’s precisely what she’s going for, but she—not to mention the writers—is in no rush to get there just yet. (Not that we’d want them to.) They might only be half-listening to her, but Drew, Elliott, and Portia represent parts of her personality . Her clueless, occasionally insensitive side is Drew; her yearning, Portia (who has her own approval-seeking problems). Elliott’s outpacing Dory, but even that drive could be her desire to do something, anything. Even though the only time he spares for Chantal’s disappearance is to tweet about it over brunch, Elliott wisely observes that there’s no reason for Dory to be any more upset about the tragedy than any of them. He seems to have the least patience for Dory in general, but all those “projects” aren’t going to curate—sorry, manage—themselves.
Early, who recently appeared in High Maintenance, is doing hilarious supporting work again. He provides such a carefree, confident counterpoint to Shawkat’s endlessly searching Dory. Unlike her character, though, the Arrested Development alum isn’t outmatched. Her deadpan, straight woman portrayal grounds the crazier moments—that is, when she’s not setting them into motion. Even if she’s a bit listless, it doesn’t mean Dory can’t be hurt or pissed off, which we see in rapid succession in “The Mysterious Disappearance,” culminating in one of the best New York street outbursts since Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy.
Lest you think that the Search Party will remain a figurative one, the Brooklyn action’s interspersed with the actual hunt for Chantal, which ends with the discovery of her bloodied pink sweater. But how can that be, when Chantal’s sitting in a Chinese restaurant near Julian’s (Brandon Micheal Hall) apartment? At least, it looks like her. Dory doesn’t get a chance to confirm her identity, but she does pick up a free copy of Anna Karenina, whose not-so-happy ending is one most are familiar with. This doesn’t necessarily bode poorly for Chantal or Dory, but Russian lit just has a way of bringing people down in general.
“The Woman Who Knew Too Much”
Now that she’s found her first real clue, it’s tempting to assume that Dory is the titular woman with overwhelming knowledge. That honor actually goes to a recurring guest star, but Dory’s no scrub in the learning department. She probably had some idea as to how Anna Karenina ends anyway, so that MTA rider with the spoilers can just suck it. Besides, she doesn’t have to read all the way through it to find Leo Tolstoy’s most pertinent (for now) line: “…the pleasure lies not in discovering the truth, but in searching for it.”
That could be the theme for the whole show, really. Just two episodes in, Search Party’s striking the perfect balance between its noirish elements and the outlandish comedy of something like Broad City, to say nothing of all the great one liners. There are subplots and side stories, including poor Portia having to suffer the indignity of her mother roping in an employee to join them during lunch just so they don’t end up “bored.” Even if they were merely distractions, they’d be welcome—but, as Tolstoy so eloquently put it, these are detours that are every bit as meaningful as the destination.
Dory has no idea what the quote means yet, but it’s just the kind of cryptic encouragement she needs at the moment. Because just before she stumbled upon Chantal and her book, she had gone to lay her soul bare to her ex-boyfriend in Flushing. Julian’s more than just the one who got away—he has or is doing everything Dory wishes she were. He’s got a career (journalism) and he’s been cleared for mentoring (well, actually tutoring), something that Dory was excluded from in the previous episode. As the volunteer coordinator so scathingly put it, there’s nothing anyone else can learn from Dory. After sobbing “Everybody can tell me what I can’t do, but nobody will tell me what I can do,” she freaked out on Drew, but then she went to ask Julian to do a post-mortem on their relationship. Though Dory was taken aback by his honesty—including challenging her to reconsider why she’s so wrapped up in this Chantal thing—the encounter did lead her to the missing woman.
But that’s the only favor Julian did for her, because that impromptu reunion lands her in some hot water with Drew, who’s clearly jealous of her ex. Although I know Drew’s hopeless—his ideas of sex are, anyway—I was relieved when he offered to help the neighbor he and Dory so often hear fighting with her significant other. He seems sincere in his offer, but his confidence that he can resolve any issue just elicits another profane tirade. But he’s not so shaken that he doesn’t want to get to the bottom of whatever might have just happened between Julian and Dory. He furtively texts Julian an invitation (behind his boss/Michael Showalter’s back) to clear the air that definitely does not include the free milkshake he ended up with.
I’m glad to see Drew’s personality expanded upon here. He’s not so spineless that he’d bring the guy who might have recently had sex with his girlfriend a milkshake, but he’s also not quite brave enough to keep himself from throwing it at the guy’s retreating back. (Kudos to John Reynolds for playing such an engaging boor, even if he does play the ukelele.) I’m not sure of the exact length of their relationship—Dory says something about it having been six years since college, but I don’t know if they’ve been together that whole time or what. But Drew’s immaturity in the face of a threat, imagined or otherwise, underlines how stagnant the relationship and the couple as individuals have become. In her quest for Chantal/herself, Dory is also looking for some excitement. (Again, that sex scene in the previous episode suggests there’s all manner of dissatisfaction at play here.)
Tedium might not be the best reason to get involved with a police investigation, but at least Dory’s following through on something. However, the reported sighting has cast Chantal in a new light—police are now considering that she might have left of her own volition. (Maybe Chinese food is just that hard to come by in her neck of the woods?) Dory’s incensed by the implication that she’s bungling the rescue, especially when she’s put so much into it already. This leads to an brief, albeit incisive, exchange with the desk cop who’s trying to wave off her concerns, as she lumps him in with the “bad apples” we always hear about in the wake of the shooting death of an unarmed black man by police. Though it’s retracted just as quickly as it’s tossed off, it’s not a throwaway line—the way Dory half-mumbles it reveals her own lack of conviction, but she also can’t bear to miss the opportunity to rail at law enforcement. Whether or not that’s something the object of her growing obsession would do remains to be seen, just like Chantal.
It’s not a complete wash, though. Dory does meet someone else who believes that Chantal is alive and wandering the streets of New York. Unfortunately, Lorraine (played by Rosie Perez with the right kind of unnerving energy) isn’t really the break in the case Dory’s hoping for. This paranoid realtor seems to have glommed on to Dory’s “tragedy” the same way Dory has to Chantal’s. It’s also possible that she’s a figment of Dory’s imagination, who just happens to end up crashing the party Elliott’s throwing, which he just happened to remember when his sort-of boyfriend Mark appeared to have already made other plans for the evening. In addition to bringing everyone together again for the first time since the episode’s opening, the party also provides an important piece of Elliott’s backstory. And it looks like his actual history with tragedy (a childhood bout with cancer) has provided him with an optimistic outlook on life, not to mention a lower tolerance for bullshit. (Which is surprising, given the flowery yet noncommittal words that spill from his own lips.)
Whether she was rattled by Lorraine or inspired by her, Dory does find another piece of the puzzle when she matches the handwriting from the margin note in Anna Karenina with a sample from Chantal. Though it’s provided via an Ice Bucket Challenge video, it’s another hot lead for Dory.
- Welcome to TV Club coverage of Search Party! I’ll be posting a double review every night this week—yes, even on the holiday. The entire first season is currently available on TBS, but if you watch ahead, please be sure to keep spoilers out of the comments.
- I’d wager the first table read was a cozy affair. Showalter and Bliss worked together on Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp, which also featured Early, who also starred in Bliss and Rogers’ Fort Tilden.
- When Portia’s pride is hurt by her fellow partygoer, is it because of the woman’s ignorance of Surviving Essex, or that her “I don’t have a television” her own posturing?
- Digging For Clues, Names Edition: Drew’s name can’t be a coincidence, given the Carolyn Keene connection, right? And how about the erstwhile Maeby being subjected to the whims of multiple oblivious blondes, including one named Portia, a.k.a, the first name of the actress who played Lindsay Bluth Fünke? And Elliott… okay, I don’t have a reference for that one. Maybe a dry wit matched by George Eliot?
- Elliott casually referring to the time “that guy from Craig’s List paid [him] to throw candy at [him]” over another brunch with his friends should be enough to make detractors of the meal come around, if only for the scintillating conversation.
- Apologies to John Early, but there’s no denying he was styled with such a Joey Gladstone vibe in that first meal scene.