Post-college existential ennui seems like an unlikely theme for a TV show. But Search Party does an excellent job of nailing that particular time in a person’s life, by using a Nancy Drew-esque mystery as an allegory. This unusual, Michael Showalter-fueled show tracks Dory (Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat, no stranger to unusual shows), who we meet as she’s floundering after graduation. Her fellow twentysomethings have found various footholds: Elliott (John Early) is some sort of artist-philanthropist hyphenate. Self-centered Portia (Meredith Hagner) has landed an ingenue role on a crime show. Even Dory’s well-meaning but ineffectual boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), is a corporate lackey, where his aggressive boss is played by no less than Showalter himself. Dory, however, has an unfulfilling gig as an assistant to a rich and chronically lonely woman (Christine Taylor), and pines for Julian, her charismatic ex (Brandon Micheal Hall).
So our lead is in dire straits when she spies a flier announcing the disappearance of a college acquaintance, Chantal Witherbottom. She’s immediately intrigued, but the interest ramps up exponentially when she thinks she sees Chantal in a Chinese restaurant. The search for Chantal propels Dory into the most momentum she’s likely had in months. Her friends vary from being concerned about her to getting caught up in her unlikely quest themselves.
And it’s easy to see how they get caught up in it. Search Party tantalizingly dangles a clue here, a suspicious character there, until it’s impossible to tell whether Dory is on the trail of a wide-ranging dastardly plot or if she’s a bit unhinged herself. The co-conspirators she runs into along the way are just as confusing, but no less fascinating: Rosie Perez as a paranoid realtor, Ron Livingston as a shady private eye, Parker Posey completely hamming it up as a supportive cult leader who might as well be holding torches for Dory to lead her along this mysterious path. Just like in those Nancy Drew novels, seemingly inconsequential objects like a necklace or a torn check all take on greater meaning when Dory pastes them into her mental conspiracy scrapbook. Or is a necklace just a necklace?
Any fear the viewer may have about being dragged along on a possible wild goose chase is alleviated because the journey itself is so engaging, offering heavy-handed but humorous commentary about the various life searches we all find ourselves on. The show smartly plays to its likely youthful audiences, naming each episode like a Nancy Drew mystery, dropping the series all in one week and making all the episodes available online for those who just want to binge to the end. The self-centered actions of some of Dory’s friends almost constitute negative millennial stereotypes: Elliott and Portia would be annoying if they weren’t so absolutely entertaining. Hagner, in particular, has been an underrated standout since she was a teen on As The World Turns, and it’s nice to see her get a long-overdue lead here. Of course, the millennials are not all that shallow: Julian is a responsible investigative journalist, and Drew at least seems to have his heart in the right place, even though he favors what could possibly constitute negative foreplay in one of the saddest sex scenes ever seen on TV. But when Dory’s pack manages to pull off a small victory—infiltrating a possibly sinister cult, blackmailing an adulterous businessman to get money to pay a source—their euphoria is contagious and understandable. They all feel rudderless, and looking for Chantal becomes their own reason for being, even as they inappropriately crash a memorial service or stalk Chantal’s sister at a bridal salon. The morality lines get increasingly blurred, until what they’re doing is as criminal as anything related to Chantal in the first place.
Dory is faced with a bleak world, told straightaway at a job interview that she’s not even qualified to teach tic-tac-toe. Her dire circumstances, expertly laid out in the first episode, make the frothy mystery that quickly forms around Chantal understandably exciting. The production on Search Party is cinematic, with spot-on young-poor-people apartments and a score that sways—like the series itself—from light-hearted to menacing and back. The ultimate reveal, when it arrives, is extremely satisfying, even though it potentially upends everything that came before it. But the show is about Dory’s search, after all.
Reviews by Danette Chavez will run nightly November 21 through 25.