Search Party takes delicious pleasure in millennial guilt

What happens when a group of characters whose lifestyle is almost pathologically confessional have to cover something up?

'Search Party' returns.
(Image credit: Jon Pack/TBS)

Search Party — TBS's terrific, odd sendup of millennial foolishness that ripened into a mystery only to shift genres once more in the finale — returned Sunday for a tricky sophomore season that replaces the quarter-life crisis powering the first season with a very 2017 concept of guilt. What happens when a group of characters whose lifestyle is almost pathologically confessional have to cover something up?

The series, which focused on Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat), a dissatisfied seeker who starts filling the holes in her life by searching for a missing girl named Chantal (Claire McNulty), was never easy to define. Half-comedy, half-thriller, Search Party started off by seeming to clumsily bridge the gap. Dory's serious determination to find her "friend" Chantal (they were more like acquaintances) clashed with her actual horrible, myopic, irritating friends: Elliot Goss (John Early), a skilled liar who managed to pivot the revelation that he lied about surviving cancer into a book deal; Portia Davenport (Meredith Hagner), a pretty, flimsy actress who's too needy and self-obsessed to succeed; and rounding out the group is Dory's boyfriend Drew Gardner (John Reynolds), a put-upon killjoy whose brows remind one of nothing so much as a beleaguered muppet.

Co-creators Sarah Violet-Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter cleverly introduced Dory, the star, as the only character with anything like true moral purpose. It was an adroit premise that totally took me in; it worked so well, in fact, that I started to sour on the first season after a few episodes. Given the sinister underground network that might have Chantal, the show seemed too much in thrall to Dory, her contemptible pals, and their urge to burnish their profiles with their search for a missing girl.

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If you've seen Search Party's first season, you know that this was exactly the intended effect. Chantal's disappearance was a ruinously empty rabbit hole, and my irritation that people weren't taking it seriously was actually being carefully built and managed. As for Dory, the only "good" millennial, the gutsy female detective who chases the truth at all costs, she turned out to be more than spectacularly wrong. Moral compasses don't work, and neither do hunches. The finale snuffed out Dory's ethical authority and cast everyone, including the sainted figure of the missing girl, into the same (reprehensible, self-indulgent) melting pot. Search Party turned out to be a sly indictment of everything it appeared to be indulging.

The ending offered such interesting turnabout that there were questions as to whether the series could even sustain a second season. Those fears were unfounded. These writers are at the top of their game, and the show deftly manages its awful foursome as they descend into their group's version of guilt — which is really a desperate fear of consequences.

If the show sometimes feels like a mean ethnography of perceived millennial failings, its treatment of this particular foursome's panicked efforts to wriggle out of trouble is both very fun to watch — they need to suffer a little — and, at a basic level, great suspense. This is Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" — if Poe liked high-waisted shorts and prioritized brunch. It's a pleasure to watch panic perforate their exasperating veneers and to share their horror with them.

To the show's credit, its characters never quite resolved fully into the caricatures they seem to be. The actors are so good that it's hard to pick any particular performance out (okay, it might be McNulty's Chantal). But the writing is top-notch too; if these guys sometimes drift awfully close to their curated images, the effect eventually explodes. Portia's success playing a murderer and Elliot's sparkling welcome from his publisher both give them exactly the kind of external validation they require, but thanks to stress and fear, their ebullient, Instagram-ready selves start to crack. Elliot and Portia are both polished and selective oversharers, but both end up losing control in public (Early and Hagner are real comic talents and do some of their best work when their characters' narcissism clashes with their anxiety and ambition). Drew and Dory are responsible and reserved by comparison, but both turn out to be ... well, let's just say they're reckless. Reynolds puts Drew's blandness to good and sinister use.

As appearance morphs and substance stretches, some of Search Party's best and most revealing shots take place in cars, when everyone's facing forward. When someone says some callow, expected, "millennial" thing, the others — who know that for once they're not being observed — might respond in kind, but their faces remain blank, their vaguely tortured expressions registering exactly how distant they are from the shiftless jouissance they're supposed to supply. If our heroes aren't quite conscience-stricken, they are stricken. Maybe, Search Party ventures, that's enough?

Ultimately, even if the show fantasizes, a little conservatively, about how delicious it would be for the stereotype of the millennial to crash head-first into Consequences, it sympathizes enormously with the people it follows — Dory especially. Comedy and drama might have competed in the first season as it see-sawed into its final shape, but they strike an uneasy truce here: Alia Shawkat handles drama beautifully and with real Hitchcockian style (she's an absolute vision in the finale), but many of her worst, most heart-wrenching moments are also — and how they pulled this off is the show's greatest mystery — hilarious.

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