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Search Party: A Millennial’s Quest for Meaning

TBS's new comedy pours existential angst into a noir thriller plot.

TBS Originals / Jax Media

The subject of millennial aimlessness has attracted a great deal of attention lately. In Search Party, Dory (Alia Shawkat) initially seems built to specifications provided by the world’s op-ed pages. Dory is just barely participating in life. She has a boyfriend (John Reynolds) who is nice as nice could be to her, but his idea of satisfying sex lasts only a couple of minutes. She works as a personal assistant to a woman of no particular profession (Christine Taylor). “Dory, how is it that you are good at the stuff no one else wants to do?” this woman asks  in the first episode of the show, all ten of which are airing this week on TBS for a kind of Thanksgiving binge watch. “I’m just happy I can help,” Dory says, both sincerely and grimly.

By the end of the episode her “help” will find new focus and purpose. A college acquaintance, Chantal (Clare McNulty), has gone missing. Dory rapidly becomes obsessed with finding her. She manages to spot Chantal in a Chinese food restaurant, just for a moment, and becomes convinced that Chantal must be on the run from some major dark force.

The show rapidly makes clear that Dory is more obsessed with this case than she should be. Her determination to solve the mystery at any cost alarms virtually everyone around her, even as they’re occasionally willing to indulge her in her capers. It’s not like her millennial friends—an actress (Meredith Hagner) and a kind of water-bottle impresario (John Early)—have anything else to do. Having nothing to do—and finding something to do about that—is the theme of the show.

Search Party is primarily the work of Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, who are also responsible for 2014’s Fort Tilden, a mordant independent film about two clueless millennials in search of the beach. You might be sensing a commonality there, and before I explain why I think Search Party succeeds anyway, I should note that these sorts of question make a lot of people shut off the television. Why should anyone care, they wonder, about the existential travails of relatively well-off young city-dwellers?

This was one of the (many) choral chants of dissent about Girls, and many might be tempted to apply it to Fort Tilden and Search Party too. The notion that work and even a long-term relationship ought to be fulfilling, ought to be “meaningful,” rightfully sounds like privileged cant to people in other parts of America. If your options for work are mostly in the service industry, and if your choice of romantic partners is limited to the residents of a very small town, this aspiration sounds absurdly entitled. Context matters, even in a show like this, which lives on the edge of a stoner comedy. 

The difference between a show like Girls and Search Party, however, is all in the comedy and point of view. Like its much closer cousin Broad City, Search Party demonstrates affection for but not acceptance of its characters. They are mostly ridiculous creatures. Shawkat, who came into the entertainment world as Maeby Fünke in Arrested Development, is trying out something new by playing the straight man. Dory’s desire to find out what happened to Chantal is almost achingly sincere, but the show spends most of its first few episodes signaling how plainly disastrous this whole intrigue will be to Dory’s sense of self, even as she’s determined that finding Chantal is her only chance at giving her life meaning.

Search Party is really clever in how it goes about that. We have all the tropes of the usual mystery show: the woman who says she knows something (Rosie Perez) but also has something to hide; the mysterious but hot private investigator (Ron Livingston); a cult of birth and taxidermy led by an unsettlingly sunny Parker Posey in a chic industrial neighborhood. We also get a lot of good comedy, like John Early’s character watching an a capella group sing a version of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” at Chantal’s vigil. “Uhn uhn,” he sniffs.

But rather than being straightforward pieces of the puzzle, each of these people is also a red herring for Dory. She is so determined to make Chantal’s disappearance into a meaningful event that, on meeting Perez’s character, she overlooks every obvious sign of trouble: vagueness, fits of temper, and odd moments with strangers. The result for the audience is more than dramatic irony, somehow: It’s almost like a contagious form of cognitive dissonance. We can see how nice it would be, for Dory, if this encounter with a crazy woman actually meant something at all. We can also see how stupid it is that she’s holding on to the notion that there is a there there.

This toying with the audience’s expectations gives Search Party a curiously existential edge. Without giving away the end of the story, it’s safe to say that this isn’t another True Detective. There is no big conspiracy-type explanation of exactly what happened to Chantal. What there might be is a big conspiracy-type explanation for is what happens to Dory as she pokes around. Or maybe it’s just a cosmic joke.

Dory tells her friends at some point that her affinity to Chantal is that Chantal, like her, is one of those people who falls by the wayside, who is frequently “unseen.” Of course, the fact is that in her misguided attempts to save this person, Dory isn’t really “seeing” Chantal herself. The whole purpose of this detective story is to have the mystery disintegrate even as Dory thinks she’s picking up more clues. Her heroine’s journey, to get all Joseph Campbell on you, is constantly disintegrating. In the end it might not even exist.

There is actually, in all that, something rather profound. For all that this show presents itself as comedy, the whole thing is an attack on the notion that some things are worth doing. It’s not quite nihilism, but it does smartly put the whole notion of self-improvement—hell, of escape from the self—on blast. We are told that Dory isn’t particularly talented, that she isn’t particularly smart, that she isn’t particularly special. In another sort of show those Everywoman qualities would be the stage for which greatness is set. In Search Party, instead, Dory turns out to be just what she always promised to be: a person who makes a lot of the wrong choices, for whom even altruism and motivation are booby traps. Maybe that’s the real trouble with millennials, these days. No matter where someone like Dory turns, there’s no real reason to try or say or do anything.