The first episode of “Search Party” opens in the dark woods, where people with flashlights are yelling, “Chantal! Chantal!” Familiar crime-thriller-TV music throbs in the background — the kind of music that’s sort of sexy and hip and lends itself nicely to the backdrops of Shonda Rhimes shows. It’s a world that modern TV consumers are well-acquainted with; in those three seconds at the top of the show, you know that this is not just any search party, and the missing girl in question has a deep, dark mystery attached to her.
Dory — our hero — seems to intuit all this and more as she happens upon the “MISSING” poster on a telephone pole while she’s on a walk down a crowded New York sidewalk. She doubles back to stop and look at the poster in full. We see her face as she looks: She knows something. There’s more to this story than meets the eye.
Then a passerby says, loudly, “Girl, you standing in shit. Nasty. Don’t wear them on the train! Make the whole MTA smell like shit.”
And just like that, we’re jolted back to a different sort of reality, outside the fantastically dark storyline of so many prime time dramas.
TBS — a television station known, until this year, as the home of “Friends” reruns, “Frasier” reruns, and not much else — released “Search Party” in a binge-watchable format in early December, encouraging viewers to take in the whole ten-part series at once. Since then it’s been critically lauded, being declared as fundamentally “fresh” more than anything else. And it’s true: There isn’t another show out there quite like this one.
“Search Party” is more comedy than drama, but the mystery at its center has serious pull, and each (criminally short) episode ends with a nail-biting cliffhanger. Each episode has a title that reads like a classic noir: “The Woman Who Knew Too Much,” “The Secret of the Sinister Ceremony,” “The Riddle Within the Trash,” etc. The plot focuses around the mysterious disappearance of a girl named Chantal Witherbottom.
Dory, played by everyone’s celebrity crush Ali Shawkat, is more than a little intrigued by Chantal’s disappearance. She brings it up at brunch (because of course it’s brunch) with her friends. “Do you guys remember that girl, Chantal Witherbottom?” She asks. They struggle to remember, until Dory shows a picture from her phone, and Elliott (John Early) says, “Oh yeah. She sucked.” He adds, “She had nothing to offer. She was always like, brushing her hair in public. It’s like, brush it at home. Please.”
When Dory explains that Chantal has gone missing, the mood changes (but only slightly). Portia (Meredith Hagner) says, “I feel like I’m going to cry,” while Elliott, stone-faced and gulping somberly, tweets, “In shock. Sad news about a sweet girl. Keep an eye out people.” In the same breath, Portia says, “Dor… did I sleep with that waiter a few years ago?”
If you haven’t figured it out already, this is a show about the worst kind of millennials, but their characters are written smartly enough that they don’t come off as parodies. Writers have been trying to do effective satire on millennial culture for years now, but nothing has quite worked. (Remember “Selfie?” or “Cooper Barrett’s Guide to Surviving Life?” No? Neither does anyone else.) It’s hard to write characters in the age of Snapchat and internet dating that don’t come off as cliché or farcical.
But “Search Party” nails it. Dory is spectacularly bored with her life and believes she is destined for something more. Her tall, glasses-wearing boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds) has a good sense for interior design, badly wants to be a quote-unquote good person, and is too handsome to be good at sex. Elliott and Portia are particularly compelling, each with captivating (and hilarious) side stories that give them unprecedented dimension for supporting characters.
It doesn’t hurt that Early and Hagner are two of the greatest comedic actors to come to the small screen in a long time. Early achieves that subtle faking-serious-but-believing-it-himself facial expression that we have all seen time and again in small liberal in-crowds. And Hagner transforms a ditsy blue-eyed blonde actress (who, wonderfully, is cast as a Latina on a crime show) into a character with depth and texture.
So “Search Party” makes you come back not just because of its strong narrative (which it has), or because it’s laugh-out-loud funny (which it is), but because it is somehow a show that has it all. Even — although you’ll have to stick it out to the end to fully comprehend it — some pretty biting social commentary.
The characters on “Search Party” are relatable, and that’s what’s so scary about them. They tell enormous lies, take from people who have mental difficulties, bad-mouth strangers, and refuse to apologize for the way their actions affect others. And still, if you can’t see yourself in them, you can definitely see someone you know (and probably someone you like).
There are also some perfect (and I mean perfect) guest spots. Parker Posey (who never ages, apparently) plays an artsy-hippie shop owner/ cult leader and pulls out her signature stone-cold comedic timing. Rosie Perez is a charismatically manic realtor who practically pops off the screen. And then there’s Ron Livingston, Christine Taylor, and Brandon Micheal Hall, who all bring genius acting chops to rich and funny characters.
Ultimately, “Search Party” is the show we’ve all been waiting for. It has a little something for everyone, and the writing is sharper than I’ve come to expect from television comedies. The first season hits a home-run with an ending that pays off better than anything I’ve seen all year (maybe ever). It’s so good, in fact, that it’s almost too bad that the show was picked up for a second season.
But I’ll be watching nevertheless.