What happens when a friend of yours goes missing? Do you file a police report, send out an Amber Alert or post a status about it on Facebook? Or do you actually go and seek out the person yourself?
These questions linger over TBS’s dark, hilarious new comedy “Search Party” — not to be confused with the atrocious 2014 movie of the same name starring Thomas Middleditch. The TV show follows a group of four self-absorbed young adults who embark on a reluctant quest to find their missing college friend, Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty, “High Maintenance”). Out of all of them, protagonist Dory (Alia Shawkat, “Arrested Development”) shows the most concern, despite having had only one interaction with Chantal back in school. As Dory and her pack of friends unearth more clues about Chantal, they learn a lot more about themselves and one another than they initially believed.
Led by a talented young cast who imbue the show with phenomenal comic performances, “Search Party” twists the existential dread of post-college ennui into a strange, intriguing and satisfying whodunit à la “Nancy Drew.” The show certainly appeals to millennials, in that its characters and dialogue reflect a lot of what millennials are like. But to classify it as a “show for millennials” is simply wrong. Like Comedy Central’s “Broad City,” its crass humor mirrors the dysfunctional antics of shows like “Seinfeld” and its missing-person mystery subplot is as compelling as an episode of “CSI.” It’s a show that, though somewhat familiar as a conventional comedy with an unconventional setup, feels wholly original on its own.
Thanks to the gifted craft of its creators — Sarah-Violet Bliss (“The Color of Time”), Charles Rogers (“Fort Tilden”) and Michael Showalter (“Wet Hot American Summer: The First Day of Camp”) — “Search Party” incorporates absurdism and surrealism, while still remaining grounded in reality. Shawkat is perfect as Dory, playing the role of the straight-woman with assured finesse and a tinge of melancholy. Dory’s mission to find Chantal is the show’s main drive, but “Search Party” focuses on what this mission tells us about Dory as someone who is herself lost in a world that couldn’t care less about her.
She works in Brooklyn as an assistant to a rich socialite (Christine Taylor, “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”), where she’s given rudimentary tasks like throwing out unattractive, expensive clothes. Her love life also seems to be rather unexciting; Dory’s sensitive yet ineffectual boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds, “Stranger Things”) lacks both understanding of her boundary issues and the awareness to see the strains in their relationship. The two have a fight early on in the season, which turns out to be one of the funniest curse-laden outbursts on television in recent memory. Meanwhile, her two other best friends, the manipulative Elliott (John Early, “Other People”) and the naive extrovert Portia (Meredith Hagner, “Men at Work”), are too invested in their own shenanigans. Nevertheless, Dory does her best to drag along the three to help her look for Chantal, even though the real reason for finding Chantal lies within Dory’s own anxiety about making her life less mediocre.
“I think you’ve decided that this matters to you because you have nothing else,” Dory’s ex Julian (newcomer Brandon Micheal Hall) bluntly tells her when she asks for advice.
While “Search Party” is predominantly a plot-driven show, it also depicts these characters as three-dimensional, (somewhat) nuanced people. Dory’s sublimation over finding Chantal to satisfy her own needs is incredibly relatable to anyone who’s ever projected their anxiety onto other people’s lives. At first, Drew seems like a puzzled, immature asshole — which he is for the most part. But over the course of a few episodes, he’s seen as someone who deeply cares about Dory, even if he isn’t the best at showing it. On the other hand, Elliott is an attention-seeking narcissist, but unapologetically so, thanks to the likable charm of Early. The only character who needs a bit more work is Portia, who occasionally verges on the “dumb blonde” stereotype. Regardless of its flawed characters, the show is exemplary in demonstrating the power dynamics of modern friendship, as well as the search for truth in a society masked with lies and deceit.
Aesthetically, “Search Party” also brings a lot to the table with its enchanting cinematography and mesmerizing synthpop soundtrack — Purity Ring’s “Obedear” is the show’s theme song. Each episode title sounds like a chilling crime novel waiting to be read, such as “The Mysterious Disappearance of Chantal Witherbottom,” “The Woman Who Knew Too Much” and “The Night of One Thousand Candles.”
It’ll be interesting to see how “Search Party” will continue after its first season, which can be watched in its entirety on TBS’s online streaming platform. Will each subsequent season focus on a different mystery? Will Dory find the meaning in her life? Will Chantal join their group once she’s found? Like many mystery shows, “Search Party” is filled with questions, but fortunately it has all the right answers.