One of the side effects of watching four seasons of a TV show in the span of a week is that you don’t get to feel lengthy periods of confusion. If something happens on a show that changes up the status quo, you can always just hit play on the next episode, or the next season, and adapt. To be binge-proof—and by that I mean that the experience of watching a show should not necessarily be enhanced by a week’s worth of anticipation in between episodes—a show either has to rely on the strength of its own narrative (instead of twists and turns and mysteries), or it has to make the plot shifts so dramatic that they stick in the viewer’s mind even as they blaze through to the next portion of the story.
Search Party is not the first show to follow the latter roadmap, and it won’t be the last, but it is—by some happy combination of its subject matter, the strength of its cast, and its willingness to be as batshit crazy as possible—one of the best suited for tidal waving away its own premise. Over the course of its run—with season four recently concluding on HBO Max— the show has been a mystery drama, a psychological thriller and murder cover-up, a legal procedural, and then an exploration of trauma and loss of identity. If there is one consistent gimmick to the show, it’s that the gimmick is always changing. Perhaps it’s not a gimmick, then, but a feature.
The first season of the show, which aired on TBS in the span of a week in 2016, is as straightforward as it needed to be in order to actually get made. Dory Sief, played by the excellent Alia Shawkat, finds out that her college classmate and acquaintance Chantal Witherbottom is missing, and decides to find her. Dory has no reason for getting caught up in Chantal’s disappearance, except that she is aimlessly searching for purpose while stuck in a meaningless assistant job and going through the motions in her relationship with Drew, her lanky and timid boyfriend, played with appropriate Midwestern awkwardness by John Reynolds.
[Spoiler warning from here on out for anyone who cares about such things…]
The big reveal at the end—that Chantal wasn’t missing, but just hiding from her responsibilities, like the truly horrible person we find out she is—is purposefully a wet fart, an indication to Dory that she won’t find meaning in someone else’s life. It would be a good sentiment, and one of those lessons that TV sometimes manages to sneak into its shows, if it were not followed by Dory finding meaning in killing someone.
Search Party‘s first season ends with Dory and Drew committing a murder, turning season two into a cat-and-mouse game, as the pair and their similarly self-unaware friends Elliot and Portia try to cover it up while the police are breathing down their necks. They get caught, of course, and season three turns to the story of their trial, ending with Dory getting off scot-free, thanks to a deluded closing statement that manages to convince the jury, and perhaps herself, that she is innocent. She is no longer our heroine at the climax of season three, and has instead become the villain she has been building towards being since the start.
Something happens at the end of season three, though, that not only changes the plot points once again, but actually alters the DNA of the show. Up until the closing moments of that finale, Shawkat had been the driving force of the show, the main propelling agent for the story. After her character is kidnapped by Cole Escola’s Chip and downgraded into a prisoner for pretty much the entirety of season four, Search Party goes through an identity crisis not dissimilar to the one Dory faced back in season one. Does it want to be a missing person story again, as Drew, Portia, and Elliot (now a Fox News anchor with his own gun line?) race to find Dory? Does it want to be an exploration of the trauma Dory has caused others and, more importantly, herself? Or, and this is the darkest option, does it just want to put its ostensible heroine-turned-villain through torture in order to unlock a new character to play with in the future? The answer is likely some combination of all three.
Of all the risks that Search Party takes in its first four seasons, this decision to backseat Shawkat—the clear star and stand-out of the show—for an entire season is the boldest one. Hell, the entire main cast plays second fiddle to Escola in season four, which could have backfired if the actor and comedian hadn’t been up to the task. They are, though, giving Chip a whiny and off-putting persona that makes the viewer almost as uncomfortable and weary as Dory herself. He’s just as deluded and annoying as the main cast, but he also has the true evil within him that Dory and friends only put on like a Saturday morning brunch outfit. He doesn’t seem all that dangerous, certainly not compared to Dory, but he does hold all the cards, and Escola plays them in the creepiest manner possible.
It’s an antagonistic choice to point Chip’s character in this direction and to eliminate any expectation of a good guy turn or even some earned Stockholm Syndrome. The only time Dory comes close to accepting what’s going on is when she is (almost literally) mind controlled into believing everything the viewer saw leading up to season four was a lie.
The list of shows that could successfully pull off the transformations that Search Party has now done three times is small. So small, in fact, that it’s easier to point out the ones that failed: Archer found success in its fifth season by taking the cast from a spy agency into the world of drug running and Latin American politics, but it faltered—and arguably never recovered—when it tried to pull the same trick for an exhausting period of time in between seasons seven and 10. Meanwhile, Scrubs attempted to put on a medical school-based season nine that was widely reviled. It might be even harder to do what Search Party did with Shawkat in season four; the list of shows who could purposefully diminish its lead in order to elevate a secondary character is probably even shorter, and you have more “The Office after Steve Carrell left” disasters than successes.
In fact, I can only remember watching one other show that pulled off a complex tonal shift while also sidelining one of its main stars: AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire began as a Mad Men-but-in-the-computer-revolution knockoff, with Lee Pace playing a more neurotic Don Draper character, before the showrunners realized that the heart of the show was its ensemble cast. After season one, the focus shifted away from Pace and towards Mackenzie Davis’s Cameron and Kerry Bishé’s Donna and their burgeoning video game start-up, Mutiny.
There’s no neat and tidy story like that threading through the four seasons of Search Party. If there is one central theme, it’s that everyone is awful and lost and perhaps not even doing their best at all times. It’s a messy progression unfolding over time. The supporting characters are all various shades of hateable—Elliot is hilarious, yes, but he also spent the fourth season spouting homophobic, self-hating propaganda just because he wants attention; Drew is a murderer and also just a dweeby piece of wishy-washy shit; Portia is just an egomaniacal disaster. Nothing is really keeping them together besides being linked to a murder.
TV shows can get a lot of mileage from shitty people in lead roles; just ask It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. But usually shows interested in the idiosyncrasies of shitty people go on a logical progression: the characters start shitty and grow as people, while still retaining their innate shittiness; You’re The Worst did this well. Search Party is clearly interested in something else: it has taken ostensibly good—if annoying—Brooklyn millennials and turned them into shittier people with every passing season. There could still be a redemption arc for Dory, or for her friends, particularly after season four’s finale, which left them all on the verge of breakthroughs, though only after 40 episodes depicting a descent into hell, both figurative and literal (Dory almost burns to death in a basement; if that’s not hell, I’m not sure what is).
Each time the show gets darker and more fucked up, it risks alienating viewers and sending them away from the story it’s telling. Search Party continues to take risks each season, but that commitment to telling a coherent story about this fucked up group of people grounds its bold swings in tone and character. It’s not easy to keep things on track and out of stunt territory, but the show has put in the work across its evolution to make it pay off in spades.
That’s because Search Party isn’t really the story of four messy people, not in its entirety. It’s about the process of forging your true identity, and that metamorphosis is often crooked and chaotic, whether a murder is involved or not. The journey that Search Party sends its characters on isn’t as straightforward as the one in, say, Breaking Bad, which made it pretty clear that Walter White was capable of moral failings from the start. Dory and her friends do not start out as villains, and they might not even be that as it stands after season four. The show purposefully avoids having easy answers to big television questions—What is this show about? Why should I care about these people?—in favor of throwing everyone involved into the fire and seeing what they do next.
I have a feeling, with 40 episodes of evidence backing me up, that Search Party wouldn’t want it any other way.