It’s nearly impossible to take stock of Search Party’s fifth and final season, which lands on HBO Max this week, without revisiting its entire, wild, genre-switching, network-hopping run. The show launched as an interrogation of millennial anxieties, set in the nebulous of hipster culture at the time (Brooklyn) and filled with sly, biting commentary on the self-entitlement and, simultaneously, the very real dread inherited by a generation raised in the post-Y2K internet boom. They brunched, they stalked their frenemies on social media platforms, and they found a misguided sense of purpose in hunting down a familiar face that wound up on a missing person’s poster. They fed each other’s narcissism and delusions of grandeur, but they also filled voids in each other’s lives – ones left by absentee and overbearing parents, needy boyfriends, and unfulfilling career paths.
All of that still rings true for the show’s final hurrah – a trippy Magical Mystery Tour of cults, tech gods, influencer culture, and an apocalyptic event or two. For any other show, this amalgam of competing story threads would probably prove too much to handle. But Search Party’s final magic trick is to take a term we normally reserve for shows that completely lose the plot by their last season and transform it into a kind of weirdly aspirational goalpost for the next-gen of dark comedy on TV.
In other words, Search Party’s final run purposefully “jumps the shark” and, honestly, we couldn’t think of a better way for it to end.
We won’t spoil that completely unexpected curtain close, but we will preview the winding road to enlightenment the group travels down to get there. Dory (Alia Shawkat) has somehow survived being held hostage by her twink stalker and the raging inferno we saw her trapped in when season four ended. She was clinically dead for 37 seconds – a medical phenomenon she eventually builds an entire cult around – and subsequently placed in a mental asylum by Drew (John Paul Reynolds), Elliott (John Early), and Portia (Meredith Hagner), when she came to spouting off about doomsday visions and her need to help others experience her spiritual awakening.
While she’s on lockdown, the gang tries to find some semblance of normalcy, although even a concept as familiar as “settling down” conflicts with the megalomania of this trio. Portia and Drew begin dating because they believe no one else will understand what they’ve been through while Elliott reunites with boyfriend Mark to adopt a genetically engineered baby because “they’re conversation starters.” When Dory does eventually escape the mental hospital to find them, there’s judgmental apprehension but also, the feeling that all of them are secretly relieved to be drawn back into their friend’s toxic orbit. Their lives were incredibly boring without her.
It makes sense then that a sincere apology and lunch at a chic pop-up is all it takes to convince the group to join Dory on her quest to spread enlightenment, one that leads them to the door of smarmy tech mogul Tunnel Quinn (Jeff Goldblum continuing the show’s tradition of booking bigger-than-life guest stars who perfectly fit in this world). Quinn’s a billionaire businessman who surrounds himself with inventors and scientists smarter than him in order to peddle products that promise to revolutionize but seem to always disappoint. In Dory, he sees another grift that can bolster his prophetic tech messiah image and earn him some serious cash. (We don’t have to spell out who Goldblum’s parodying here, right?)
It’s a scheme for Quinn, one Elliott is all too happy to buy into and Drew is too spineless to stand up to, but Dory and, oddly, Portia, believe in it. Or, at least, they believe in the image it can help them create. Shawkat is hypnotizing as Dory gently descends down a path so many true crime documentary subjects seem to careen to. She’s quietly powerful, earnestly convincing her friends and us that she does, in fact, just want to help people. Her egocentric impulses are disguised by flowing white linens and soothing mantras about “unconditional love” and one’s individual ability to change the world. She persuades her friends, detractors, and the group of influencers she hires to help get her message to the masses that death is a logical stepping stone to enlightenment. And don’t we all want enlightenment? Or, at the very least, the constant euphoric high it seems to be giving her?
What follows, as Dory assembles her tracksuit disciples and starts promising a scientifically-engineered jelly bean that can both kill you and save your life, is completely unexpected and yet, also, totally predictable. When Dory started this journey, her intentions to find a missing woman named Chantal were good, if not extremely self-serving and they eventually led her to ruin not only her life but the lives of everyone around her. Season five follows that same basic premise – Dory wants to do good and be recognized for it, Dory destroys everything and everyone she loves in the process – but ramps up the drama and fantasy and horror and comedy up to unprecedented heights. It leans into the absurd and impossible in a way that gives everyone, particularly Early and Hagner, room to shine. Those two have been the not-so-secret MVPs of the show’s entire run and here, they get to stretch their legs with the kind of over-the-top weirdness comedically gifted people normally only dream of performing on TV. And Reynolds reliably plays everything – from Drew’s romantic epiphanies to his sleuthing trips to Maine – in a straight-man fashion that can be particularly hard to nail on a show so bizarre, so magnified.
There are some pretty glaring tonal issues, especially as the show makes a grand shift in its final few episodes, and though Clare McNulty’s Chantal Witherbottom is always funny, her subplot with Kathy Griffin (another lucky get) feels disjointed and disconnected from the main story in a way that is never fully rectified.
Still, for a series that introduced itself as a show about millennials who brunch, Search Party has found a way to hit on the singular selfishness, paranoia, and frustrating disillusion of an entire generation in refreshingly unique ways. There’s no show on TV quite like it. We doubt there will be again.