Note: This interview contains spoilers for the Search Party season-three finale.
A verdict has been rendered, but the case is hardly closed for Search Party. In season three, creators Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers took their series in another new direction, both re-creating and reimagining true-crime stories to put Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat) and Drew Gardner (John Reynolds) on trial—as much for their navel-gazing as the murder of Keith (Ron Livingston).
After weeks of increasingly ridiculous testimony, courtroom pyrotechnics, and Dory performing for the cameras and spectators, season three seemingly ended with no real consequences for either of the defendants. Dory had successfully pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes, including her own. But a last-minute twist forced her to cop to everything, which, for someone who’s recently perfected the art of lying, is punishment in and of itself. The A.V. Club spoke to the co-creators, as well as Shawkat and Reynolds, about villains, trauma, and why withholding the truth is sometimes more revealing.
The A.V. Club: Watching season three is a little bit like when you’re catching up with friends or family that you haven’t seen in a while, but under tragic circumstances, like at a funeral. What’s it been like to bring back the show in a year that’s been kind of a disaster bingo—a pandemic, murder hornets—and on a new platform?
Charles Rogers: Yeah, it’s been very surprising how Search Party has been rolled out. When we made season three, we were expecting for it to come out soon after making it, but it’s been two and a half years. A lot of the themes in it are still totally relevant, but it just seems like the world has gotten more intense, and those themes are only more present than before. We haven’t really had much control over how Search Party’s been presented by the networks and how it’s changed hands and then kept from the public for a while. I have just as little control over the world and the context with which it’s being released, so it’s just going to be interesting to see how people take it and what people take away from it.
AVC: I want to talk a little bit about the look of the season and any cinematic references you might’ve been drawing from. The first season, especially in the promotional art, drew from Nancy Drew. The second season took inspiration from Hitchcock movies. Was there a similar pool of references for the third season, a genre of storytelling, or even a specific story that influenced you?
CR: The third season is a little bit more of an homage to courtroom dramas and legal thrillers. The key art in the posters has always kind of helped orient us when we’re writing, imagining, “Well, okay, what will this season’s hook be visually in terms of the marketing?” It’s a helpful way to narrow down the scope and the angle of how you want to present the show. We thought early on about John Grisham posters as being a reference in between the books and the ’90s thriller posters. There’s a lot to play with in that. So, John Grisham in general: The Client and The Pelican Brief. There’s a lot of tropes that are fun to play with in those. And then insofar as one specific story goes, the Amanda Knox trial was really influential.
There’s two avenues for references for this season. One is the legal thriller, and the other is a less formal genre that’s like the “media frenzy genre,” so to speak—movies like The Bling Ring or To Die For, where the idea is that everybody’s watching and your characters kind of start to change in the face of fame. It’s just a fun, juicy kind of context to drop everyone into. There’s a lot to draw from in real life. Amanda Knox was a big part of that—how people projected onto her, and how enigmatic the whole portrayal of her was. Dory changes a lot in this season, and that was a way to kind of fill her story.
Sarah-Violet Bliss: It’s also this story of the truth not mattering as much as the story of what your legal strategy is, of that being more important than what actually happened in the event of what took place.
AVC: For much of the show’s run, Dory’s searched for meaning or identity, and it’s been very destructive for everybody around her. But with this season, it feels like it’s the first time that the consequences are really being laid at her door. How soon into the writing process for season three did you think, “The buck is going to stop with Dory?”
CR: When we wrote the first season, we had a contained idea for it, even though we had a loose vision for where the show could go beyond the first season. We liked the idea that by the end of the first season, Dory realized that all the meaning that she was searching for in life was all in her head. Then it became tricky to figure out how to keep expanding on that idea, and the way that we found a rhythm with it was that Dory is really kind of a symbol for denial. Then we started thinking about the different ways that you can unpack denial and you can portray denial. So in season three, the way that she disassociates from herself and starts to believe her own lies, is, ideally, a deepening of that denial. It creates a lot of destruction for the people around her. But I think, insofar as their personal relationships go, maybe the most damaging aspect of it is that no one can tell what is really Dory’s truth. And then there’s some implicit, deeper themes there about what is anyone’s truth? And what is the self? That’s not so obviously, overtly in the show, but those are questions that we were asking ourselves when we were writing it.
SVB: And it’s a question of can Dory even tell? We watched a lot of true-crime stories, like The Staircase, which make you ask, does it get to a point where even the person who committed the crime can’t admit to himself that he did it? Or does he have to believe that he didn’t do it? We talked a lot about that. They just want so badly for people to believe that they’re innocent, even though they’re not. They all just want people to believe that.
AVC: You have the opportunity throughout the season to introduce more of a reason, be it some kind of hidden trauma, for why Dory is the way that she is—really, why they’re all like this. Last season, we met Portia’s mom. This season, we meet everybody else’s parents. It feels like a chance to go into their pasts and say, “This is how they ended up this way.” What inspired you to not pursue that?
CR: Yeah, it was a decision specifically for both Dory and Elliot. They both have such extreme personalities and extreme character traits that it feels like you need and want there to be an origin story for how they got the way that they are. For Dory, it’s something that we talk about every season: Was there a moment that made her be this way? And we started to talk about that in season three with Elliot, because you start to see how far his lies go. And for both of those characters, without giving too much away, both of those characters serve kind of different things narratively for us. We use a lot of creative license when it comes to crafting Dory, because while making the show, we’ve learned that the looser she is, as far as our portrayal of her, the more we’re able to say about her and about her condition of being someone who’s in denial.
So when you start to think, “Well, all of her trauma comes from this,” then it ends up feeling kind of unsatisfying. In some ways, it’s maybe more fiction than reality when creating the character, because everyone’s trauma comes from somewhere, arguably. But with Dory, it just feels like, at the end of the day, she is sort of a literary device for us [Laughs.]. There’s something richer about withholding it and being able to explore the different sides of her, so that she has this sort of “everyperson” energy about her, that you can kind of imagine how you might also find yourself fracturing under extreme circumstances, that it’s not just about this one moment that made her this way. The same goes for Elliot, who is such a comedic character—there were moments where we were thinking, “Well, why is he such a liar?” And I remember specifically wanting to narrow that down and everyone else being like, “No, that makes Elliot not fun.” [Laughs.] And they were right. So there’s a moment where you almost learn in season three, and it’s funnier to almost learn than it is to learn than have to sit in too much of the reality of Elliot.
AVC: By the end of the season, Dory has gotten frighteningly good at lying and manipulating people. Did you know she was going to pass the point of no return when you first started shooting?
Alia Shawkat: We definitely knew what was happening. I think that helps us make some choices for our characters, even though they don’t know. There are always moments for improvising on this show, but because it is this mystery-suspense kind of thing, it’s important to know where it’s going. For me, it was really important to track where it’s going and then know how to get her there, so that it feels honest to the character.
AVC: Dory spends so much of the season performing, especially once she catches on to the fact idea that everybody’s watching her—and some are even empathizing with her. Not most people, because she is the one who’s vilified in the press, while Drew is the one who gets marriage proposals on the steps of the courthouse.
John Reynolds: Yeah, and gets pasta delivered to his door.
AVC: By the end, do Dory and Drew see each other that differently? Does Drew really see Dory as a villain, and does Dory think of Drew as kind of a dupe or sap—you know, somebody who fell for it?
AS: You want to tell me what Drew thinks of Dory first, John?
JR: Yeah, I think that Drew always wants to see the good in Dory, and I think that’s been a part of his arc over the season—he has this idea of what he wishes Dory was and is still hanging on to it. So I think a part of them throughout the whole season still believes in this idea of who she is, that there is this morally good person in there. But her slide into this increasing delusion is like a ticking time bomb for him. So, Drew’s dealing with morally what is right, and that includes being his partner and having it go in the completely opposite direction. I think that slowly erodes from the inside. So I think he still loves this idea of her, but it’s just not the reality anymore.
AS: Yeah, and as Dory becomes this very performative liar, I think for her, it’s a survival mechanism. She’s like, “If I don’t believe it, no one else will.” So she gets pathological where she really starts to push this idea of “I didn’t do it,” even to the people who know what she did and are like, “What’s going on?” But to her, she just can’t have any slack. I don’t think she views Drew as a sap, but I think she starts to view everyone else as separate from her, to the point where she’s like, “I just need you to do this. This is what needs to happen.” She starts to look at everyone as pawns in her game, because if she starts to care too much about other people, even the people that she loves, it’ll be at risk of her reality. Dory feels she has to give everything to this, otherwise there’s no chance. She can’t doubt myself at all, which is where it gets really scary, because I think Drew and Portia and Elliot are still like, “What? What’s going on? Where did you go?” And Dory just thinks, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m right here.” It’s really terrifying for that reason.
AVC: At the end of the season, Dory has what she’s seemingly been looking for: a captive audience, someone who is willing to listen to her—only, she’s the captive. Her stalker has heard and taped her confession. There are so many directions this can take in the fourth season, but what are you most looking forward to as far as your own storylines? Are you hoping that it’ll get more action-packed next season?
AS: Well, not to be a double spoiler, but we already shot the fourth season, so we actually know what happens. This won’t give too much away, but in the fourth season, as far as where the third season ends, it all comes full circle. The show started with Dory looking for someone, looking for herself, and now the gang has to find her. The search has shifted. That’s where the fourth season begins, with this narrative shift of, now she’s the captive one and will they find her? Will she still be there by the time they do?
JR: With every season, it’s been fun to see how these characters individually deal with this trauma and how they compartmentalize and try to move on. It’s like a further exploration down that same path now, with the group dynamics being what they are. Where do your loyalties lie, and why do you continue to save each other’s backs? There’s always the question of why they all remain in this friendship, even though it couldn’t be more toxic.