Search Party Season 1 Review: Nancy Drew and the Case of the Quarter-Life Crisis.

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TBS serves up a dark comedy that offers both an entertaining whodunnit, and a biting satire of millennial melancholy.

Nancy Drew would’ve never gossiped about a mystery over brunch with her friends, but that’s exactly what happens in the premiere episode of Search Party, TBS’ newest series that takes a twisty missing-person mystery and leaves it in the hands of a group of aimless, privileged Brooklynites.

If that last sentence made you roll your eyes, fear not. This show is much, much smarter than it than its premise would lead you to believe. It comes from Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rodgers, the minds behind the ingeniously divisive and little seen Fort Tilden. Both that film and this series draw from the same post-collegiate existentialism that’s the subject of shows like Girls and Broad City, but with a sharper sense of self-awareness. Search Party treats its cast of hipster 20-somethings like real, three-dimensional humans, but it never lets the audience forget how privileged they are, and how oblivious they can be to their own surroundings.

Also sharing a series creator credit is Michael Showalter, one of the creators of the cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, and its recent Netflix prequel series First Day of Camp. This is likely the reason that the series also has a delightful sense of irreverence that courses through it, even as things start to get really dark. Despite its harder, sarcastic edges, Search Party also isn’t afraid to be genuinely goofy at times, making it even more engrossing.

The story follows a young woman named Dory (Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat) who’s drifting listlessly through life. She works as an assistant to a rich, lonely woman (a hilarious Christine Taylor), has a boyfriend named Drew (John Reynolds) who’s well-meaning, but completely unaware of her wants and needs—the pilot episode features what might be the most depressing sex scene ever aired on TV—and friends Elliott and Portia (John Early and Meredith Hagner, respectively) who have found a modicum of success after college that she has yet to attain. When Dory, on her way to meet everyone for brunch, sees a missing persons flyer for a girl she went to school with—amazingly named Chantal Witherbottom—she’s immediately curious. Her life up until this point has been filled with so much ennui, that something with real-world stakes completely reenergizes her.

The actual mystery of Chantal is captivating in its classic caper sensibilities. Each episode, in a nod to Nancy Drew novels, has a title like “The Mystery of the Golden Charm,” or “The Woman Who Knew Too Much,” and clues manifest themselves in ordinary objects like a necklace or a ripped up check from a real estate agency. Still, the real draw of Search Party lies in its highly flawed but highly fascinating characters, and how they react when they’re thrown into something so unexpected.

Dory initially appears to be our eyes into the world of the show, which makes the first few episodes a little difficult to watch. It’s clear she doesn’t want to be as blissfully unaware as Drew or as vapid as Elliott and Portia, so it’s slightly frustrating to see her continue to interact with them, despite her resistance to their lifestyles. Just because she put up with this bullshit in college, doesn’t mean she has to do it as an adult. Yet, the third episode in the season “The Night of One Hundred Candles,” peels back the curtain on Dory and reveals her to be much more than just the straightman against everyone else’s wackiness. The episode takes the gang upstate for a candlelight vigil with Chantal’s family and, aside from featuring a gut-bustingly funny and highly inappropriate a capella version of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” we see Dory fully step outside of her own life an into Chantal’s. Yes, she is concerned for her missing friend, but it’s immediately clear that she’s in this for personal reasons more than anything else. To put it bluntly: Dory is utterly bored with her life, and this is a chance for her to do something that matters.

You could easily counter that her reasons for trying to find Chantal don’t matter, it’s the act of finding her that’s important. Yet, Search Party contains a number of characters who do good things for bad or selfish reasons. The show is clearly geared towards millennials—the series is airing two episodes per night on TBS this week, but all of them are already available to binge online—but it isn’t afraid to give Gen-Y a good ribbing while it holds our attention.

Elliott is a character who could’ve easily become an offensive cliché; a self-obsessed, gay multi-hyphenate who still lives off his parents and is trying to start a chic water company that will donate part of its proceeds to children in Africa. Yet, in “The Riddle Within the Trash,” he immediately becomes more interesting as a secret he’s held onto for years unravels and threatens to ruin his whole operation. Portia, a perky blonde actress who gets booked on a crime procedural, is like a toned-down version of Jenna Maroney from 30 Rock. Still, her friendship with both Elliott and Dory is endearing, despite her inflated ego.

In all honesty, all of the characters on Search Party could have come off as infuriating if it weren’t for the wonderful performances behind them. Shawkat truly shines in this series, bringing a nuanced sense of longing to Dory that makes her a mesmerizing central figure, even when her actions are cringe-worthy. Early and Hagner have outstanding chemistry as Elliott and Portia, but are also able to stand on their own. Hagner’s bubbly personality is wholly enjoyable, making her self-obsession more amusing than annoying. Early, for his part, delivers some of the best lines of the series in a pitch-perfect faux sweet voice. His scenes with an on-again, off-again boyfriend (the lovely Jeffery Self) are funny enough to warrant their own spinoff. Even Reynolds, who at first makes Drew comes off as selfish and inconsiderate, eventually evolves his character into someone much more sympathetic.

On top of this, the show features a slew of guest appearances, like the aforementioned Taylor, that only add to the fun. Ron Livingston shows up as a hardened PI who’s also on the case for Chantal, Rosie Perez plays an intensely paranoid realtor, and Parker Posey gets a chance to gleefully ham it up as the owner of an eccentric Brooklyn boutique/possible cult member.

The stars aside, Search Party is an incredibly tricky feat to pull off, which makes the show even more worth the watch. Bliss, Rogers, and Showalter deftly balance the thrill of the mystery with the inherent comedy of everyday Brooklyn life. The entire series is shot like a concise indie film, making it perfectly binge-able in a short period of time. Most importantly, though, is how the show uses Chantal’s disappearance as an allegory of sorts for the main characters’ own feelings of misplacement in the world. At one point Dory wonders, who would go looking for her if she were to disappear?

When the mystery finally reveals itself in the finale, it’s quite a doozy, but not in the typical, shock-worthy sort of way. I won’t give anything away here, but the reveal is such a perfect punctuation mark at the end of Dory’s long, obsessive journey, and it says a great deal about the lengths she was willing to go for Chantal, while also leaving a door open for a potential second season (please, please, please). It’s a culmination of the low-stakes/high-stakes dichotomy that runs throughout the series. I’m sure it will spark debate, but I absolutely loved it.

Dory might be a modern day, and highly dysfunctional, Nancy Drew, but Search Party is wholly original. I certainly hope that this show finds an audience. I would really hate for it to disappear. Grade: A-

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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