Search Party: a mystery with laughs (TBS)

The term “millennial” is often used in place of a punch line. Merely evoking this catch-all term for those raised in the 90s is supposed to provoke a knowing snicker. To be a millennial is to embody an oblivious mix of selfishness, entitlement, naiveté, and wild idealism. At least, that’s what millennials would have you believe.

TBS’s ten-part series Search Party is a satirical skewering of this maligned generation created by two of its own, Sarah Violet-Bliss and Charles Rogers, the writing team behind the indie film Fort Tilden. Set in New York City, Search Party pokes fun at the privileged twenty-something demographic populating Manhattan and Brooklyn, torn as they are between achieving world peace and picking out the best-fitting skinny jeans.

Satirical narrative isn’t a natural bedfellow for television. Laser precise observation doesn’t typically align with the fast pace of the form in the way the novel serves the wry observations of writers like Evelyn Waugh, or, more recently, Paul Beatty. Search Party is a special case: not only is it spot-on satirically, but it also happens to be a remarkably well-made series of television.

The secret to Search Party‘s success is its mystery. The unforgiving portrayal of modern culture is placed within the story of a disconcerting disappearance of a young woman named Chantal Witherbottom. It’s Witherbottom’s missing person mugshot that occupies the first scene as Dory (Alia Shawkat) recognizes Chantal as a girl she (barely) knew from college. Dory is shaken by Chantal’s disappearance, and consequently becomes obsessed with finding her. TBS released all ten episodes at once, and for good reason; as Dory morphs into a D.I.Y. sleuth, her haphazard investigation ensures that Search Party is unpausable.

Search Party is an example of what can be achieved by straddling different genres. Over ten episodes, Violet-Bliss and Rogers, together with co-creator Michael Showalter, have pitched the dial perfectly. It’s an impressive balancing act, reminiscent of 2004 comedy-horror film Shaun of the Dead, which managed to be both funny and terrifying. In Search Party, mystery and comedy share the same scenes, seemingly throwaway jokes transmit information crucial to the detective work.

For instance, during a vigil for Chantal at her family home, what should be a somber occasion is undercut by the gleeful reunion of Chantal’s old accapella group, Choral Perfection, who belt out Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” as if it’s the most appropriate thing in the world. Then the spoof is punctured. Dory sneaks into the house to rummage around Chantal’s childhood bedroom for clues. Laughter quickly evaporates and is replaced by adrenaline.

Given that real life can’t be stratified into neat little boxes, it’s a wonder why there aren’t more efforts to merge genre on television, excepting the more tried and tested, “comedy-drama”. Search Party’s ambitious blend of comedy and mystery ventures into untested waters with admirable results. And the genre spillover goes beyond comedy and mystery: the deeper Dory delves into her detective work, the more strain she places on the relationships that make up her everyday life.

Dory (Alia Shawkat), Elliott (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) (TBS)

Initially, however, Search Party takes some getting used to. Before Dory falls down the rabbit hole of her pursuit, the viewer is introduced to a variety of archetypes that make up Dory’s circle of actual friends. There’s Portia (Meredith Hagner), an airhead actor, Elliott (John Early), a narcissist on the cusp of every trend, and Drew (John Reynolds), the lanky, inconsiderate, ukulele-playing boyfriend. As good as the satire may be, the prospect of spending five hours with these hollowed-out shells is not particularly inviting.

But stick with it. What initially appears to be a case of 2-D characterization evolves into a wry commentary on identity. Portia, Elliott, and Drew all use their respective character types as shields against introspection, as maps to navigate through life, and as foundations for their behavioral codes. The problem with Dory is that she doesn’t fit into any discernible mold, and it’s this existential crisis that fuels her obsession with finding Chantal. Dory wonders, “Would anyone even care if something bad happened to me?”

Though the “meaning of life” element of Search Party is occasionally unsubtle, Dory’s quest for purpose is a millennial motivation that rings true. Where other generations prioritized security and happiness, for those privileged enough to be living comfortably in New York City while working unpaid internships or part-time jobs, the pursuit of greater meaning is all that’s left. In reality, this greater meaning translates to a need for praise and attention, though Dory would hardly admit that.

At times the privilege of the show’s central characters is grating, even when the jokes at their expense are plentiful. (That said, lack of a full time job is a requisite for quality sleuthing). And characters outside of Dory’s inner circle, with the notable exception of smug ex-boyfriend Julian (Brandon Micheal Hall), often exhibit cartoonish exaggeration. Unlike Dory and Co., these walk-on parts rarely unfurl into anything more than sketch characters, and are dissatisfying by comparison.

Yet, in the search for your next TV show, these quibbles are little more than red herrings. Search Party is a suspenseful and inventive romp of a series well worth your time. And here’s a hunch befitting a cynical, world-weary private eye: expect copycat imitations any day now.