Search Party is a show whose identity has been as fluid and changeable as its morally dubious millennial protagonists. It’s been trying on genres the way one would try on shoes, picking whichever gave its story – the exploration of a generation’s psyche – room to grow, evolve, and maybe one day, step over the threshold into something resembling adulthood.
What began as a story about a young woman in search of meaning and purpose (and a brief acquaintance she met in college named Chantal Witherbottom) has matured into a retrospective on identity and the importance of knowing oneself that feels oddly relevant, despite this latest season being filmed in tandem with last year’s excellent third installment. But burdening the show with cultural baggage feels wrong, somehow. It’s not a series really “made for these times,” a critical catch-all that’s been stamped on so many pieces of art right now.
Instead, Search Party is and always has been, a show about millennials, for millennials, and for the people who find a sick kind of pleasure in watching them f*ck things up. That’s true in Season 4, which lands on HBO Max on January 14th. We’re still watching lanky, loveable Drew (John Paul Reynolds) struggle to move on after the events of the trial and the implosion of his relationship with his murderous ex-girlfriend. We’re still watching ditzy, starved-for-attention Portia (Meredith Hagner) try to extend her time in the spotlight. And we’re still watching fame-hungry, narcissistic Eliot (John Early) exchange his principles and values in the name of greed and popularity. But we’re watching all of that while also being trapped alongside Dory (Alia Shawkat), who should be enjoying her ill-gained freedom this season but instead is being held prisoner by the Twink.
It’s a jarring juxtaposition and one that causes the show to drag in places during it’s first few episodes. The chemistry of the four leads is what elevates Search Party satirical edge but there’s no way the show can tap into it with Dory now captive inside a padded cell meant to resemble her own apartment, being fed peanut-oil-fried chicken nuggets by a deranged psychopath named Chip (Cole Escola), the Twink who soaked Portia in honey and tried to get rats to eat her alive last season.
Chip’s insane to the Norman Bates’ degree, and we learn more about his colorful family life as the season goes on. Still, his many psychological issues are only meant to inform how we view Dory, and how she views herself post-trial. She’s killed two people now, escaped jail time for both murders, and was seemingly drunk on her new infamy before being thrown into Chip’s trunk following Eliot’s disastrous wedding. As her friends debate whether throwing a “Glad You’re Not Guilty” party is tacky, Dory’s chained to a chair, head shaved, as Chip tries to brainwash her into forgetting her old life and bad friends.
The back-and-forth between Dory’s stagnant storyline of failed escape plots and the rest of “the gang’s” momentum-driven arcs disturbs the pacing somewhat, but never the humor. Search Party is still a whip-smart series that finds clever ways to poke fun at its character’s worst eccentricities and make them feel uncomfortably relatable. Drew’s in search of happiness while sweating underneath a fur suit playing a theme park mascot. Portia’s answering casting calls to play herself in a Lifetime-esque riff on Dory’s murder case. And Eliot wants to “heal the nation” with a political talk show that eventually convinces him to cosplay as a conservative right-wing Republican with his own line of glitter-covered guns. They clue into the weird timing of Dory’s disappearance early in the season and it’s when they join forces to half-heartedly search for their friend that the comedy kicks into full gear. There are car chases in a roundabout and trips to a honey bun factory and a bleakly funny funeral that give each actor time to shine, though Early and Hagner feel like standouts this season. Really, why aren’t these two in more things?
But Search Party is still mainly concerned with Dory’s journey, sometimes to its detriment. The season’s decidedly dark, quite deadly turn makes it infinitely more interesting than part runs but Dory, as Eliot can attest, is not a likable character. In fact, she’s spent season after season making terribly selfish, terribly stupid decisions and roping her friends into paying the price for them. So yes, it’s awful what she goes through — the torture, the captivity, the brainwashing — but even the worst of it struggles to stir up any empathy for a young woman who’s left so much destruction in her wake. What does make Dory’s storyline worth watching though is Shawkat’s performance. The girl’s got range, and it’s on full display as Dory finally stops fighting her constraints and start reexamining herself. All of Season 4 is essentially one big, unethical therapy session for Dory, and we see the effects of it plainly in the way Shawkat uses her physicality and facial expressions to breathe life into this broken shell of a human being.
By the end, we’re left weirdly rooting for Drew and Portia and Eliot while still laughing at their flaws, their inherent quirks, and ignorant outlooks that probably won’t change. They’re not bad people, they’re just self-centered and vain, by-products of the time they’re living in. But Dory, she’s something else. A woman both consumed by and afraid of her inner darkness who’s still figuring out what she’s capable of, how far down the rabbit hole she’d go for what she wants. Whether she deserves forgiveness or a second chance isn’t so much the question as whether she’ll actually afford herself either of those things. The show has an answer, though you’ll have to wait until its final episode to know what it is. Until then, there are twists and turns you won’t see coming, and some surprisingly thoughtful commentary hidden behind the sharp satirical jabs and situational humor that Search Party does so well. It’s hard to believe it’s still such an under-the-radar comedy.
‘Search Party’ Season 4 is now streaming on HBO Max.