‘Search Party’ Schools Us Brilliantly on the Art of the Twist

The ten-episode season, airing over the course of a week, is worth watching to the end.

If your eyes involuntarily roll at the thought of yet another dark half-hour comedy set in New York City and populated by young, affluent people who live in apartments with exposed-brick walls and work in creative-class jobs that sound just vague enough to be meaningless — well, Dory feels your pain. Played by Alia Shawkat, Dory — the protagonist of the new TBS series Search Party — eyes the self-centered city dwellers milling about a rooftop party in Brooklyn with the weary resignation of someone who’s watched too many Netflix comedies.

From the very beginning of Search Party, which premieres tonight with two back-to-back episodes (the entire first season will air throughout this week, with two episodes a night from Monday to Friday), it’s clear Dory is in a funk. She has a lackluster relationship with her live-in boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds). Since college, she’s been a personal assistant to a nice but vacuous woman (Christine Taylor) who doesn’t work. Her fashion-forward friends are equally superficial: The smug Elliott (John Early) has correctly diagnosed himself as a narcissist, and the flighty Portia (Meredith Hagner) is an actress on a crime procedural.

When Dory sees a missing-person sign and recognizes the girl, Chantal, from college, she becomes obsessed with finding her — even though, as her friends point out, she barely even knew her to begin with. Creators Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers nimbly set the scene for Dory’s general malaise, and her growing feeling of responsibility for Chantal. There’s a sense of pervading emptiness in Dory’s world. In the first episode, Drew plays dumb songs on his guitar while Dory tries to talk to him about a job interview; then, the scene cuts to Drew in bed beside Dory, masturbating, before climbing on top of her. The bird’s-eye view lets us see Dory’s bored expression only, while Drew pumps away and complains about a foot cramp. “Everybody can tell me what I can’t do,” she tells a woman interviewing her for a job she doesn’t get. “But nobody can tell me what I can do.”

For Dory, Chantal’s disappearance is an opportunity to snap out of her apathetic slumber — and she recruits her hesitant friends, whose frivolities turn out to be quite useful as they attempt to solve the mystery: Portia is a smooth talker, and Elliott is a master manipulator. It’s Drew’s reluctance that bothers Dory the most, and sends her right to her ex-boyfriend, Julian (Brandon Michael Hall), a journalist who tells it like it is. He drops the bomb on Dory that she’s simply decided Chantal’s disappearance matters to her “because you have nothing else.”

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In the case of Search Party, the New York City locale is more than just a hip backdrop. It’s thematically appropriate: In New York, you’re constantly surrounded by other people and their problems, even as you’re completely consumed by your own. Should we get involved in other people’s business if we think we might be able to help? Or are we really just trying to make ourselves feel good? At what point does our responsibility to help others in need trump our respect for their privacy? In such a densely packed city, these hypothetical questions can quickly become real. In the first episode, Dory and Drew overhear their neighbors in the middle of a nasty fight; Dory wants to go over and make sure everything’s OK, but Drew doesn’t know if they should get involved. When he eventually does knock on their door, a woman answers and yells at him to mind his own business.

But Dory won’t back down, no matter how many volatile characters she encounters — including Lorraine (Rosie Perez), a manic woman whom Dory meets at the police station; the leader of a New-Age-y cult, played by the always-excellent Parker Posey; and a fellow searcher, Keith (Ron Livingston, who apparently has not aged in the past ten years). “I’m just tired of things that don’t matter,” Dory tells Lorraine.

With its cast full of sketch comedians and its hip Brooklyn backdrop, Search Party has an indie-movie feel, thanks to its indie-movie creators; Bliss and Rogers co-wrote and co-directed the 2014 film Fort Tilden, which won the Grand Jury award at that year’s South by Southwest Film Festival. Bliss was also an early collaborator on the web-series-turned-HBO-show High Maintenance, another series populated with a variety of nutty New Yorkers.

At a lean ten 20-minute episodes, Search Party is tightly plotted, ending each installment on a cliffhanger that tugs the viewer along to the next episode. Bliss and Rogers cleverly take advantage of our fixation with the next big twist to keep us hanging on, constantly shifting our attention in a new direction and slowly revealing more layers to the story. The final twist, when we finally find out what happened to Chantal in the last episode, is itself a brilliant comment on our seemingly bottomless urge for a new direction, a curve ball that will startle us out of our hollow complacence.

 

Search Party premieres tonight at 11 p.m. on TBS.